In a sunny, summer garden, people are strolling. Officers Surin and Chekalinsky share impressions about the strange behaviour of their friend Herman. He spends in the gambling house, but does not tempt fate at all. Herman enters with Colonel Tomskyi. Herman opens his soul to him, explaining that he is passionately in love, but he does not know his loved one's name. They are joined by several officers. Prince Eletsky tells of his up-coming marriage. "This beautiful angel has given consent to combine her destiny with mine!" Herman is horrified to learn that the prince's fiance is the subject of his passion.
The countess and her granddaughter enter. Both women are hypnotised by the sight of the unfortunate Herman. Tomsky tells the story of the countess who, as a young Moscow "lioness" had lost all her fortune playing the card game Faro. After an affair with Count Saint-German, she learned the secret of three winning cards, and won back her fortune. She told her husband the secret, and later a handsome young man. That night, a phantom came to her and said that she would receive a mortal blow from the third one she told.
Herman listened to the story with great interest. Surin and Chekalisky play a trick on him and suggest that he find out the old woman’s secret at cards. A thunderstorm rumbles. The garden empties. Only Herman meets the raging elements openly. He exclaims that while he is alive, he will never let the prince have his beloved.
At twilight in Lisa's room, the girls play music, trying to amuse their friend who is sad, despite her engagement with the prince. When alone, she reveals that she loves to the mysterious stranger, in whose eyes she saw the fire of scorching passion. Suddenly, Herman appears on a balcony. He has come to see her one last time before killing himself. His ardour carries away Lisa. A knock at the door interrupts him. Hiding, Herman is excited by the appearance of the old countess, who looks like a terrible phantom of death. Unable to hide her feelings anymore, Lisa submits to Herman.
In his house, a rich dignitary is hosting a ball. Eletsky, disturbed by the coldness of Lisa, assures her of the immensity of his love. Chekalinsky and Surin, wearing masks, scoff at Herman, asking him whether he will be the third to learn the secret of the three cards. Herman is excited. Their words spark his imagination. After the completion of the pastoral The Faithful Shepherdess, he sees the Countess. When Lisa gives him the keys to her bedroom which connects to the countess's, Herman thinks it is an omen. Tonight he will learn the secret of the three cards, and with it, win Lisa’s hand.
Herman hides in the bedroom of the countess. The countess enters. She is unhappy with the customs of the day, and with melancholy recalls the past. She falls asleep in an armchair. Herman reveals himself, begging her to reveal the secret of the three cards, but the countess, who has grown dumb with fright, is unyielding. When Herman threatens her with a pistol, she dies of shock. Blaming Herman for the death, Lisa sends him away. In this scene, the ancient French song "Vive Henri IV" as well as the beginning of Loretta’s aria from Gretry's Richard III is heard.
Herman is in a barracks. He reads Lisa’s letter, forgiving him, and asking him to meet her on the quay. In his imagination, he sees pictures of the old woman's funeral. Doleful singing is heard. The phantom of Countess appears in a white funeral shroud. "Rescue Lisa, marry her, and the three cards will win in succession. Remember! The three! The seven! The ace!"
Lisa awaits Herman, full of doubt. At midnight, she is finally relieved when Herman appears. But Herman, after confessing his love, is possessed with idea of using the secret of the three cards. When she refuses to go with him to the gambling house, he pushes her away and leaves. Lisa, realizing that the inevitable has happened, throws herself into the river.
The players are gambling in the casino. Tomskyi entertains them with a playful song. Herman enters and wins two large stakes, betting of the three and the seven. Prince Eletsky, looking for revenge, is the only one who will cover the third bet. Instead of the expected ace, Herman is dealt the queen of spades. He sees the features of the old dead woman on the card. Full of grief, he stabs himself. Dying, he asks for forgiveness.
The Queen of Spades