- Reading time
- 7 min.
No luck in love without luck in play. This is the idée fixe that Hermann is pursuing in Pikovaya Dama. He overplays his hand and eventually loses both the game and love, but by then we are already three hours into glowingly intense music...
It is a sunny day and children are playing in a park. Some are imitating a military parade. Two friends, Chekalinsky and Surin, discuss the strange behaviour of Hermann, an impoverished officer who seems to be obsessed by cards, yet never gambles himself. The latter appears, deep in conversation with his friend Tomsky. Hermann confides to Tomsky that he is in love with a woman, albeit one he knows little about, but that his precarious financial situation will prevent him marrying her. The rich Yeletsky joins the group and announces his marriage to Liza, who arrives shortly afterwards accompanied by her grandmother, the countess. While Tomsky congratulates Liza on her engagement, to his amazement Hermann recognizes Liza as the young woman he is so drawn to. The two women are dismayed to see the young man’s downcast expression. Thunder rumbles in the distance and they are overcome by a terrible sense of foreboding.
Tomsky relates the countess’ story to Hermann, Chekalinsky and Surin. He tells them that she grew up in Paris, where she became known as “The Muscovite Venus” because of her exceptional beauty. After losing her entire fortune at the gambling table, she managed to recoup her money thanks to a formula of winning cards revealed to her by an admirer, Saint-Germain, in exchange for a rendezvous. She passed on the winning combination to two other men, after which a menacing apparition predicted that she would die by the hand of a third man who, driven by an all-consuming passion, would force her to share the secret. Hermann listens to the story and vows to discover the infamous formula that would enable him to make his fortune and marry Liza.
Liza is chatting to her friends. One of them, Pauline, sings a melancholy aria. The others attempt to lighten the atmosphere and strike up a traditional Russian song. The governess enters and calls everyone to order: what a way for well-bred young ladies to behave! They depart leaving Liza alone. But Pauline has noticed her friend’s melancholy expression and is worried about her.
Hermann steals into Liza’s room and declares his love for her. However, he is interrupted by the countess, who was startled by the noise. He has just enough time to hide. When the countess eventually leaves the room, Hermann and Liza begin a conversation that reveals the young man’s fascination with the card combination. Liza is overcome by her feelings and in her turn confesses her love for him.
Surrounded by festive hubbub, Chekalinsky and Surin express their surprise at Hermann’s obsessive interest in the three cards and remind him of the apparition’s prophesy. Hermann grows increasingly anxious. Yeletsky is concerned that Liza appears sad, imploring her to confide in him, but to no avail. The guests are entertained with a shepherd’s song.
Amid the tumult, Liza slips Hermann the key to her grandmother’s rooms and explains how he can get into her bedroom. They say their goodbyes, while the guests rejoice at the arrival of the tsarina.
Hermann slips into the countess’ bedroom, studies her portrait and then hides. Eventually the countess enters with her servants. While preparing for bed, she recalls her youth in Paris and sings an aria by Grétry. Once the servants have left, Hermann appears. He begs the countess to reveal her secret and threatens her with a pistol. Paralysed by fear, the countess dies without uttering a word. Liza enters the room, discovers to her horror her grandmother’s corpse and realizes the depth of Hermann’s obsession with the secret of the three cards. She begins to doubt her love. Hermann flees.
Hermann reads a letter from Liza in which she suggests they meet. The young woman refuses to believe that Hermann actually killed the countess and that his love for her is not sincere. Tenderly but painfully she asks him for the ultimate confirmation of his love.
Hermann is haunted by the spectacle of the countess’ corpse and begins to hallucinate: as the funeral mass is sung, the ghost of the countess suddenly appears. She entrusts him with the coveted combination (the three, the seven, the ace) and asks him to save Liza.
Torn between fear and hope, Liza waits for Hermann on the bank of a canal. When the young man arrives, she rushes into his arms. However, Hermann appears to have lost his senses; he rambles, fails to recognize her and eventually pushes her away. Desperate and helpless, Liza watches as he heads for the gaming room. She throws herself into the canal.
In the gaming room, the gamblers sing and drink as they play cards. A disillusioned Yeletsky tells Tomsky that his engagement has been broken off and that he intends to take revenge for his unfortunate fate. Hermann appears and, to everyone’s amazement, sits down at the gaming table. He gambles a huge sum of money, draws the three and wins. He doubles his stake, draws the seven and wins again. Under the bewildered gaze of the other players, he begins to ramble. He describes death as the only certainty when life is a game of chance and offers to play a third time. Determined to take revenge, Yeletsky alone accepts the challenge. Chekalinsky deals the cards. Convinced he is holding the ace in his hand, Hermann is confident of winning. The card, however, is the queen of spades. The ghost of the countess appears. At the height of his delirium, Hermann commits suicide, after Liza has granted him forgiveness in a final vision.