WBO - "Pique Dame"
West Bay Opera's Pique Dame set designs by Peter Crompton, costume designs by Abra Berman | Courtesy of West Bay Opera

The two great curses of our time — COVID and the invasion of Ukraine — converged on José Luis Moscovich as the general director of West Bay Opera was planning to relaunch the company’s 67th season.

Coming out of the ravages of the pandemic, Moscovich long planned to produce one of his favorite operas, Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (The queen of spades):

“We made the decision well before anyone could imagine the horrors that would be visited upon Ukraine by the Russian army,” Moscovich told SFCV.

“People have asked me why I would perform a Russian opera now. I am very glad to present an opera by Russia’s most famous composer, a man who no doubt would have been horrified by the current war and who, as a gay man, would have been persecuted with the same zeal the government today reserves for dissenters and nonconforming people of all kinds. Canceling Russian culture isn’t the way.”

Rhoslyn Jones
Rhoslyn Jones makes her role debut as Liza in WBO’s Pique Dame | Credit: Kevin Clark

The opera will be performed in Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theater, May 20–29, conducted by Moscovich, directed Ragnar Conde (whose credits with the company include Macbeth, Eugene Onegin, Fidelio, Salome, and many others). The cast includes tenor Michael Boley as Hermann, soprano Rhoslyn Jones as Liza, baritone Jonathan Beyer as Prince Yeletsky, bass-baritone Kiril Havezov as Tomsky, mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya as Polina, and mezzo-soprano Laure de Marcellus as the countess.

Costumes are by Abra Berman, sets by Peter Crompton, lighting design by Steven Mannshardt, video projections by Peter Crompton with technical setup by Frédéric Boulay, makeup design by David Gillam, props design by Shirley Benson, and sound design by Giselle Lee.

Michael Boley
Tenor Michael Boley sings the role of Hermann

“We staged Pique Dame for the first time in 2007 and that’s the last time Bay Area audiences got a chance to see and hear it,” said Moscovich. “I think it deserves much more frequent revisiting than that, but the challenges are many. Beyond the fabulous themes and masterful orchestration, I find Tchaikovsky’s score extremely interesting for the care he put into the vocal writing. The fit between music and language is just uncanny. We’re having great fun with it.

“Our reopening has been challenging. Many people have relocated away from the area, looking for rental relief or escaping the claustrophobia of the pandemic, others have taken full time jobs and can no longer lend their talents to the same degree as before. It all translates into more effort and considerably more expense, and more exhaustion, after a long COVID winter that had already drained us all of energy.

Tchaikovsky with Nikolay Figner and Medea Mei-Figner, the couple who sang the roles of Hermann and Liza in the premiere in 1890

“Like long COVID, the damage that this pandemic has done to the Bay Area performing arts scene is still to be fully understood, but it is not inconsequential. The bright spot is that singers and musicians are eager to perform. We have put together a cast that will deliver a top-notch Pique Dame,” said Moscovich.

Based on the 1834 novella by Alexander Pushkin (whose works inspired perhaps more operas than any other Russian writer), the opera’s libretto was written by the composer’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky, altering Pushkin’s plot greatly.

The premiere took place in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg. San Francisco Opera produced the work between 1963 and 2005, including memorable 1993 performances which served as Leonie Rysanek’s farewell appearance in the role of the Countess.