When José Luis Moscovich came onstage at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre on Friday, May 20, the applause and cheers for West Bay Opera’s general director went on so long he had to sheepishly and repeatedly signal for silence. The audience celebration was well deserved. Friday’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (or, The Queen of Spades) was a reunion, the company’s first staging before a live audience since the pandemic began.
West Bay undertook a singularly demanding work, sung in Russian with English titles, to re-greet Peninsula opera lovers. Sprawled out over three acts in seven different scenes, this tragic tale of erotic passion and gambling addiction tinted with Faustian overtones, adapted from a Pushkin novella by the composer’s brother, poses formidable musical and dramatic challenges.
Set and projection designer Peter Crompton devised a strikingly apt frame for the action, backing the skewed angles of a raked platform and tilting architectural fragments with images of a garden and drawing room, barracks and a snow-chilled canal, eerie visions, and apparitions. Costume designer Abra Berman outfitted a large cast with an extravagance of 18th-century finery for courtiers and soldiers, a revenge-seeking prince and domineering countess, everyday townsfolk, and wine-soaked gamblers. Here was a St. Petersburg at once opulent and teetering on the edge, just as its fated lovers are.
As for the performance, Pique Dame proved to be a case of a company biting off more than it could comfortably chew, at least by opening night. With one notable and shining exception, the principals lacked authority, in both their singing and acting. Ragnar Conde’s direction yielded too many stock gestures and static stage pictures. The orchestra, under Moscovich’s baton, sounded patchy and was too often out of phase with the singers and especially with the chorus.
Like a bright light cutting through murky skies, Rhoslyn Jones stood out by blazing contrast. In the leading role of Liza, a beauty who captures the hearts of two different men, the singer tapped her arresting vocal prowess and vivid stage presence to produce a fully embodied study of a woman on the brink. In her first, carefully modulated scene, she segued from demure detachment to a mounting anguish over her engagement to a Prince (baritone Jonathan Beyer) and dawning ardor for her possessed admirer (tenor Michael Boley as Hermann.) Jones’s head feints, sidelong glances, and alarmed staggers were every bit as articulate and persuasive as her singing.
Her voice cascading from impassioned fortissimos to fretful misgivings, Jones’s Liza seemed to conjure a desperate Hermann to her bedchamber by the force of her own desire. Through her swooning portamento, some delicately hushed phrasing, and unmistakable attraction to Hermann, she projected a ravishing allure, a Liza helpless in the grip of passion. Later on, in her coruscating, Tosca-like suicide aria on the banks of a canal, Jones gave the tragedy its full human dimension.
While the temperature dropped whenever Jones was not onstage, intermittent strengths emerged over the course of a long evening. The two male rivals had their moments, most notably Beyer in the Prince’s indignant, wounded aria. Bass Kiril Havezov had some graceful turns as Hermann’s diplomatic friend Tomsky. A Mozartean pastorale was a spritely diversion. In the pit the woodwinds had a generally solid outing, highlighted by Ann Duxbury’s pleading and tender bassoon.
Pique Dame delivered its best ensemble scene at the end. Eyes glazed and mind addled by the prospect of a card game secret he’s learned from a dead Countess (a regrettably mannered Laure de Marcellus), Hermann arrived at a boisterous gambling hall to play his last, doomed hands. Impressed at first and gradually alarmed, the other men pulled back to watch Hermann unravel. The hymn-like threnody over the hero’s spent body brought this problematic production to a quietly affecting close.