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Online opera guide and synopsis to Tchaikowsky’s THE QUEEN OF SPADES

At the peak of his ability as a composer and in a two-month creative frenzy, Tchaikovsky composed a true masterpiece based on a libretto of his brother Modest and a novel of Pushkin.





Act I 

Act II





Introduktion Ouverture

Mne strashno! Quintet

Odnazhdy v Versalye Tomsky’s Ballad

Uzh vecher Romance

Kto strastno lyubya prodyoet Love scene

Ya vas lyublyu Love song


Vsyo tak kak mne ona skazala Bed chamber scene

Je crains de lui parler la nuit

Ne pugaites!… Ona mertva!  Countess’death

Ya neveryu chtoby Entr’acte and letter scene

Mne strashno! Countess’ ghost appearance

Uzh Poloch … Akh, istomilas ustala ya! Liza’s Aria

Chto nahsa zhizn Hermann’s drinking song

Knyaz! Hermann’s death

Gospod! Prosti yemu final hymn


Recording recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation




St. Petersburg, 1890


Modest Tchaikovsky, based on the novella Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin.


Hermann, officer (tenor) - Count Tomsky, officer (baritone) - Prince Yeletsky, officer (baritone) - Countess , Liza's foster mother (mezzo-soprano) - Liza, young woman from noble house (soprano) - Pauline, Liza's friend (alto)


RCA, Mirella Freni, Vladimir Atlantov, Sergei Leiferkus, Dmitri Hvorostovski conducted by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus.




The libretto of Tchaikowsky’s brother Modest

The opera is based on Pushkin’s novella from 1834, and Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest reworked the text into an opera libretto (originally for another composer).
Interestingly, in early years Tchaikovsky had advised his brother against becoming a writer, he feared his brother lacked talent. In time, he accepted his brother’s abilities and set even another libretto of Modest to music (Jolanthe). Piotr associated with him not only his artistic disposition, but also their homosexuality. After his death, Modest wrote a biography of his brother and, in their open correspondence, blackened compromising passages that could later be deciphered.



Pushkin’s novel

The libretto shares the basic outlines of history with those of Pushkin, but Modest and Piotr Tchaikovsky made significant changes. For them, the love story is in the foreground, while Pushkin’s Hermann is driven primarily by his obsession with the search for the mystery of the cards. Furthermore, in contrast to the novella, the two protagonists die in the opera.
Tchaikovsky was particularly taken with the person of Lisa. As with Tatyana from Eugene Onegin, Lisa’s pure love and willingness to make sacrifices was close to his heart, probably not least because he recognized the love for his mother and sister in these two women.
Tchaikovsky also found an strong relation to Hermann. He wrote the role to a tenor friend and suffered with the manic-obsessed Hermann. Thus he wrote his brother in a letter: “My God, how I cried yesterday, when they sang the Choir of the Dead to my poor German”.


The music

Tchaikovsky wrote the opera at the age of 50. His composer art was in its highest bloom, the Queen of Spades was written in the timely neighborhood of his 5th symphony. He wrote the opera for a full romantic orchestra. in a letter to his brother Modest he confessed: “Either I am in a terrible and unforgivable mistake, or the ‘Queen of Spades’ is really my chef d’oeuvre”.
For the opera he used leitmotifs that we already find in the overture, whose main motif is the three-toned motif of the cards. whose secret he wants to get from the Countess. Tchaikovsky’s themes are more than just memory motifs; they adapt to psychological situations.
Tchaikovsky wrote the opera in a true creative frenzy. He received the first libretto texts in January, went to Florence to compose undisturbed. After 2 months the piano score was ready and on June 5th the orchestration was completed. The premiere took place on December 16, 1890 in St. Petersburg and was celebrated with acclaim.



The role of the Countess and the quarrel with Baroness von Meck

Soon after the premiere a discord between Tchaikovsky and his so important and long-time patroness, the Baroness von Meck must have happened. The baroness stopped the correspondence and all payments. She never gave the reason for this; on various occasions after her death there were suspicions that there was a connection with the role of the Countess.








Synopsis: On a spring day in a park in St. Petersburg.

The introduction begins mystically with a motif of the bassoons – the instrument that accompanies the Countess throughout the opera. Immediately afterwards, the sighing motif in the strings hints at the coming tragedy:


Then the card motif (1:30):


and, a little later, the love theme ist heard,


with which Tchaikovsky introduces three central musical themes that accompany the opera’s synopsis as leitmotifs.

It is a magnificent overture, Tchaikovsky is truly at the zenith of his abilities.

Introduktion  –  Gherghiev


Synopsis: There is a lively bustle.

Tchaikovsky genre painting of St. Petersburg. We hear a lullaby of nurses and the choir of child soldiers. The latter is a homage to Bizet’s Carmen, whom he admired greatly.

Gori, gori yasno  / Shine, sun, bright! 


Synopsis: Hermann confides to his officer colleague that he has fallen in love with an unknown woman. Since then he has not been able to control his life and visits the casino every night and watches the poker rounds without playing himself to forget the stranger.

Ya imeni yeyo ne znayu  / I do not know her name and may never learn it   –  Atlantov




On the promenade

Synopsis: People promenade in the park.

Tchaikovsky deliberately inserted this choral scene in order to add variety to the monologue scenes. But dramatically and musically “the choir is not important in this opera” (Tchaikovsky in a letter to his brother). It is interesting that in this scene the choir is not divided according to voices, but according to age. While the old ones think that everything was better in former times, the young ones hope for the happiness of love in spring. This reflects the conflict between the old countess and the young Hermann.

 Nakonets-to Bog / At last heaven has sent us a sunny day 


Synopsis: Tomsky suggests that he woo her, but Hermann explains that she is from the nobility and therefore unattainable for him. The idea that someone else has her poisons his soul.

A ty uveren / But are you sue, that she has not noticed you?



Synopsis: Her war comrade, the nobleman Yeletski, comes along and tells her that he has got engaged.

A canon-like duet conveys the opposing feelings of the two future rivals.

Schastlivy den / Happy day 


The great quintet

Synopsis: Liza, his fiancée shows up with her grandmother, the Countess, who is also her foster mother. Hermann recognizes his unknown Liza in her. The Countess and Liza, for their part, are shocked to recognize next to Yeletski, the eerie stranger who has been stalking them for some time.

Tchaikovsky composed a great quintet for this scene. The text reveal Hermann’s unconscious intention; it is not the thoughts for Liza that move him, but he is magically captured by the Countess’s eyes, in which he foresees his doom.


Mne strashno!  –  Freni / Atlantov / Hvorostovsky / Forrester / Leiferkus


Tomsky’s ballade

Synopsis: When Yeletski leaves with Lisa and the Countess, Tomsky tells us that the old Countess was called “The Queen of Spades” when she was a young beautiful woman. She is said to have bought the secret of an infallible method of card playing from a count through devotion and become rich. The disclosure of the secret, however, would mean her death.

We listen to the great ballad by Tomsky. For the first time we hear about the cards.

Odnazhdy v Versalye  /  Once at Versailles  –  Putilin




The storms of Hermann’s soul

Synopsis: During an incipient thunderstorm, Hermann decides to find out the secret of the Countess in order to use the wealth from the game to win Lisa.

Repeatedly Tschaikowski in this opera reflects the inner states of Hermann’s soul with thunderstorm scenes of the music.

Se non è vero  –  Atlantov




The enchanting folk song

Synopsis: Girlfriends visit Lisa at the palace.

Tchaikovsky draws a beautiful idyll with this folk song. Accompanied only by piano, flute and a sparse orchestra, the two sing a magical 2-voice folk song.

Here is an excerpt from a film adaptation from the Soviet

Uzh vecher / This evening   –  Milashkina / Avdeyeva


Synopsis: Pauline sings a melancholy song, then drives these thoughts away, they should celebrate. They exuberantly dance a Russian dance.

Da, vsomnila… Podrugi milie   –  Kasarova



Liza’s monologue:  between despair and euphoria

Synopsis: The governess appears. She expresses the Countess’ displeasure with their behavior and sends the girlfriends away. Liza remains, strangely melancholy on this day of joy. She thinks of Hermann, in whose eyes the passion is burning.

Liza’s monologue is desperate in the first part and euphoric in the second. From then on she is accompanied by a vibrating orchestra.

Zachem zhe eti slyozy  / What am I crying for  –  Fleming



Synopsis: Hermann appears surprisingly at the balcony door. Lisa wants to call for help, but Hermann tells her that he will leave her immediately, that he has decided to die. But before that he wants to be with her for a short time. He confesses his love to her, which she silently returns.

Accompanied by the love motive, Hermann wants to win Lisa.

Prosti, prelestnoe sozdanye / Forgive me, loveliest of creatures / Schönes Mädchen, Göttin!


The short love duet

Synopsis: Then suddenly the countess knocks at the door. Hermann hastily hides and the Countess enters. Lisa claims not to be able to fall asleep and the Countess leaves again. When the Countess is gone, Liza asks Hermann to leave. Hermann claims to have now received his death sentence and runs out. At the last moment Liza calls him back and the two confess their love.

The tension of the music rises immeasurably until, at the last moment, Liza shouts “No, stay alive,” and the orchestra, which produced only pale wind sounds, breaks out into the jubilant theme of love. But Tchaikovsky does not grant the two an extended love duet in the Italian style. The ecstatic love oath lasts only a few bars.

‘Kto strastno lyubya prodyot / how who impelled by burning passion   –  Atlantov / Freni









Synopsis: Liza and Yeletski are at a masked ball.

A magnificent ball scene opens the second act. At the request of the opera director, Tchaikovsky wrote large ball scenes, which were opulently decorated to raise the international profile of the St. Petersburg Opera House.

Radostno / In joy and merriment gather round today 



The beautiful love aria

Synopsis: The prince worships his bride, but he notices that she evades him.

It is the passionate though desperate arioso of Yeletski. Actually this role is only a supporting role, but it is given the wonderful aria “Ya vas lyublyu”. Yeletski thus becomes a soulmate of Lenski from Onegin, whose honest love is not reciprocated by the protagonist.

We hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who had his international breakthrough in 1989 with this role and later found his most shining role with Tchaikovsky in the role of Eugene Onegin. This aria shows his elegant, long phrasings, brilliantly sung with beautiful legato in his distinctive shadowy voice.

ya vas lyublyu / I love you   –  Hvorostovsky


We hear the aria in a second version by Pavel Lisitsian. About this aria Kesting (“great voices”) wrote: “I have never heard the aria of Yeletski better and with a more beautiful sound. There is not only the broad, expansive phrasing, but also vocal imagination in the fine play of light and shadow, of colors and dynamic nuances”.

Ya vas lyublyu / I love you   –   Lisitsian



Synopsis: Hermann appears, he is obsessed with learning the secret of the three cards in order to get rich and leave with Liza.



The Pastoral – allegory of the action

Synopsis: a shepherd play with actors is performed for the entertainment of the guests .

Tchaikovsky had the Action consciously set back to the time of Catherine the Great. On the one hand, this corresponded to a wish of the theater director and on the other hand reflected his love for Mozart. Thus this intermezzo comes along completely in the style of Mozart and quotes various of his works, for example, right at the beginning Papageno’s Aria from the Magic Flute and later themes from piano concertos.

The synopsis of the Schäferspiel is an allegory of the story of the opera. Modest Tchaikovsky deliberately placed it in the middle of the opera and it points the direction in which the opera will go. The shepherdess Chloe rejects the love of the rich Pluto because she loves the poor shepherd Daphnis.




The big scene in the chamber of the Countess    

Synopsis: Unnoticed, Lisa meets Hermann. She hands him the key to the Countess’s chamber for a meeting with her the next day, when the Countess will not be at home. But Hermann does not want to wait and the two of them can leave the ball unnoticed as the guests impatiently await the arrival of the Countess. In the Countess’s bedroom, Hermann comes to stand before a portrait of the Countess on his way to Liza’s chamber. Thoughtfully he looks at it.

Excited string tremolos create a spooky, suspenseful atmosphere, the orchestra describes the excitement of Herrmann, who enters the Countess’s bedroom.

Vsyo tak kak mne ona skazala / Yes everything is just as sehe said 


Synopsis: A maid appears and Hermann has to hide. After the Countess had entered the room, Liza appears with her servant Masha. The Countess wants to be left alone.

Dark pale wind instruments introduce the scene. A ghostly mood reigns. The following song is taken from the opera Le Coeur de Lion by André Modeste Grétry, again a reference to the 18th century. The Countess is thus portrayed as a relic of a bygone era.

Polno vrat vam …. «Je crains de lui parler la nuit / Enough of your lying flatteries   –  Podles


The death of the Countess

Synopsis: As the countess lies down on the couch to sleep, Hermann approaches her. He had come to learn the secret of the three cards from her. When the Countess refuses to reveal the secret, Hermann’s urging becomes more and more desperate. Finally, Hermann pulls out a pistol and the Countess falls down dead in horror. Lisa enters the scene. She recognizes the situation in horror and chases Hermann out of the house.

Ne pugaites!… Ona mertva!   / Don’t be frightened … She’s dead  … Sie ist tot










Contrary to Pushkin’s story, Lisa committed suicide. After the death of the countess, the third act has to get along without female voices, which further intensifies the tragedy of the last act.


The eerie letter scene

Synopsis: Moonlight illuminates Herman’s room. He sits at the table an

Moonlight illuminates Herman’s room. He sits at the table and reads a letter, that Liza has written to him. She wants to stand by him and see him tonight. Hermann is troubled by remorse and falls into a restless sleep.

Another masterful Entr’acte opens the penultimate picture. Trumpet fanfares describe the military surroundings of the barracks and a funeral choir reminds of the Countess’s funeral. A grandiose scene (5:37) unfolds when Tchaikovsky quotes fragments of the love motif, has the women’s choir sing in the background and Hermann expresses the visions of a madman, only sparingly accompanied by the orchestra.

Entre-acte  Ya neveryu chtoby ty khotel smert Grafini / I do not believe that you intended the Countess death



The ghost of the countess appears

Synopsis: The wind howls around the house. He hears it knocking on the door. The ghost of the countess is waiting. It comes into the room and announces that he shall marry Liza. She reveals to him the secret of the three cards: “Three, Seven, Ace” and disappears. Hermann cannot believe his luck

The Countess’s bassoon, the howling flutes and the vibrating strings introduce this magnificent ghostly scene.

Mne strashno! / No I can’t bear it!



The gloomy canal scene

Synopsis: Liza waits for Hermann late at night on the bank of a canal. She is desperate that her luck has turned into misfortune.

Tchaikovsky described the scenes of St. Petersburg with great refinement. The spring-like summer garden of the beginning contrasts with the threatening mood of the canal on this gloomy winter night. The scene opens with an enormous funeral march, which already puts the listener in the mood for Lisa’s coming fate.

The text of Lisa’s subsequent arioso was written by Tchaikovsky himself. The arioso is kept simple and shows that Lisa loves Hermann sincerely and without ulterior motives.

Uzh Poloch … Akh, istomilas ustala ya!/ it is close to midnight … I am weary and worn out with suffering!  /   –  Gorchakova



Suicide in the river – an autobiographical element

Synopsis: Did she fall in love with a murderer? If he does not show up, there is no doubt left. She is euphoric when she sees him coming. The two embrace each other. Hermann wants to take her to the casino as soon as possible, he tells her that the Countess told him her secret that night.  Liza realizes that Hermann has gone mad and is no longer intersted in her. When he tells her that he threatened the Countess with a pistol the night before, it is clear to her that he is a murderer. He confesses that the Countess’s death was the price for the secret. Hermann is blinded by madness and pushes her away. Liza runs to the bank and throws herself into the river.

The death of Lisa quotes a tragic autobiographical element of the composer, who once attempted suicide in the Moscow Moskva River. In desperation over his marriage to Antonia (he had a love affair with the violinist Jossif Kotek), he climbed into the icy cold river to catch pneumonia. Shortly afterwards the two separated.

A yesli mne v otvet



The gaming tables

Synopsis: In the casino the guests enjoy themselves.

Budem pit i veselitsya!  / Drink and make merry!  –  Ozawa



Tomskys drinking song

Synopsis: Surin and Tomsky sit at the console and are amazed to discover that Yeletski has appeared, who otherwise never plays. Lisa has left him, after bad luck in love he expects luck in the game. Tomsky is asked to sing a song.

Yeslib miliya devitsy tak mogli letat kak ptitsy / If darling girls could fly like birds  –  Rodescu         



Synopsis: Together the guests sing the players’ song.

A beautiful Russian dance song, played with full orchestra.

Tak v nenastne dni / When the weather was wet, they often met   –  Ozawa



The game scene

Synopsis: They sit down at the table again. When Yeletski sees Herman come in, he whispers to Tomsky that he might need a second. Everybody looks at the ghostly looking Hermann, as he sits down at the players table, he has never taken part in the game. Hermann wins non-stop.

Za dela, gospoda, za karty / And now, gentlemen, to business, to the tables   –  Ozawa



Synopsis: The feelings break through with Hermann, madness seizes him.

In the so-called “drinking song” Hermann addresses the guests. He only brings about stereotypical wisdom without a deeper connection, his decay is complete.

Chto nahsa zhizn / What is our life? / Was ist unser Leben?  –  Domingo



Synopsis: When nobody wants to play with Herrmann anymore, Yeletski answers. When Hermann bets his entire fortune on one card, he takes the Queen of Spades instead of the winning ace. Stunned, he looks at the card. He thinks he sees the countess’ scornful laughter on the card. He stands up and stabs himself with a dagger.

Idyot yeshcho / No more play 



Hermann’s swan song

Synopsis: Dying, he turns to the prince and asks for forgiveness. Once again he sees Liza before him.

Once again the love song sounds in the clarinet, accompanied by the shimmering strings. The opera ends conciliatory for the audience, while in Pushkin’s novella Hermann has to go to the madhouse.

Knyaz! / Prince!  –  Talantov


The final hymn

Synopsis: The guests flock around the dead man and ask God for mercy.

Tchaikovsky ends the opera with a beautiful final male chorus singing a liturgical hymn. With last tender motives of the strings this work fades away.

Gospod! Prosti yemu / Lord pardon him   –  Ozawa







Recording Recommendation

RCA, Mirella Freni, Vladimir Atlantov, Sergei Leiferkus, Dmitri Hvorostovski under the direction of Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus




Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on THE QUEEN OF SPADES by P.I. Tchaikowsky.





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