Basing the opera on one of Alexander Pushkin's many brief, tragic tales of obsessive characters, Tchaikovsky feverishly wrote the three-act, seven-scene work to his brother Modeste's libretto after two minor composers passed on it.
Opulence is a mark of Met productions. This one begins with children playing soldiers in the park, echoing the chorus in Tchaikovsky's favorite opera, "Carmen."
The haunted Ghermann (Domingo) is a failure at the gambling tables who secretly loves Lisa (Gorchakova), a woman far above his station. He overhears that Lisa's grandmother (Soderstrom), a countess once known as the Queen of Spades, knows the mysterious secret of the cards.
Realizing that Lisa is betrothed to the Prince (Hvorostovsky), Ghermann vows to discover the secret of the cards and win Lisa, or die. After Pauline (Borodina) sings a few songs for a group of women, Ghermann expresses his passion to Lisa and awakens so much love for him that, at a masquerade ball, she gives him the key to the Countess' room.
Ghermann scares the sleeping Countess, who will not divulge the secret, and who dies when he threatens her with a gun. When Lisa enters, she realizes that Ghermann was only after the secret, not her love, but she later writes a letter asking him to meet her on a bridge at midnight.
After the Countess appears to Ghermann as an apparition, she gives him the secret of the cards - three, seven, ace. He meets Lisa, but is obsessed with the gambling house and rushes off - while Lisa, in true Russian style, throws herself into the river Neva.
Ghermann wins with the three, then doubles his pile with the seven. Playing against the prince, whom Lisa has forsaken, Ghermann bets everything on the final card. The card is not the ace, but the Queen of Spades, and a dagger soon ends his tortured existence at the curtain.
There are ravishing arias in the opera for Borodina, Gorchakova and Hvorostovsky, and Soderstrom's acting in her death and apparition scenes is magnificent.
The brilliant Gergiev, who made a sensational Philadelphia Orchestra debut last season, expertly contrasts the alternately sedate scenes and outbursts, always raising the level of conflict above melodrama.
But the tale rests on Domingo's broad shoulders, as many close-ups and his expressive singing make us feel the terror of his internal demons. In the fall, he'll make his 18th Met opening night, breaking Enrico Caruso's record.
Mark your calendar, opera fans: On Dec. 29, the Met and PBS will present Mozart's "The Marriage Of Figaro" with three of the world's most famous singers - baritone Bryn Terfel, soprano Renee Fleming and mezzo Cecilia Bartoli.