Pushkin and Tchaikovsky meet Silicon Valley in West Bay Opera’s Queen of Spades

Hermann and the ghost of the Countess
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Henry Etzkowitz and Chunyan Zhou

Playing card and human love fortuity are the intersecting choices explored in Queen of Spades, whose pessimistic theme may be more precisely expressed as unlucky in love and unlucky in cards. West Bay’s brilliantly staged and mellifluously performed presentation of the Pushkin (book) and Tchaikovsky (music), Pique Dame, a slightly awry moniker, more properly  La Pique Dame, for a Russian Opera.

LtoR: Liza, Polina, members of the chorus, Act 1, Scene 2

The St. Petersburg urban riverscape recedes into blue water playing cards emergent from the deep, queens of spade and hearts centered with a 7 of spades to the side. The computer-generated images lend depth and brilliance to the relatively modest stage area of Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre, (home to West Bay Opera and other performing arts groups cycling through the Bay area). In between San Francisco’s War Memorial and San Jose’s California Theatre, there is the diminutive West Bay Opera, which imaginatively and ingeniously often out-performs its larger-staged peers.

Rather than the typical operative sequence of dueted micro-scenes offset by large-chorused macro scenes, pace Verdi’s Aida, Pique Dame operates on a fairly constant meso level of alternating military venues, whether barracks, pub or gambling house; Nobility and acolyte populated royal graced masque balls, upper class children and their nanny monitored park environments, with occasional tighter smaller events where nobility interact with military of mixed class background.  Indeed, cross class relationships provide the tension that drives the plot, with secret numerological codes embedded in the card game of faro, their expression.

Hermann and Liza in Act 3, Scene 1

What a refreshing and happy time! Since the Pandemic, this is our first time back to enjoy West Bay Opera’s  high- tech Silicon Valley state of the art impressive staging and performance, with its ever increasing Computer powered sense of reality and depth, extending from modest physical property.

With the serious orchestra pitted and distributed on the sidelines, Pique Dame was conducted by Jose Luis Moscovich with Ragnar Conde as the stage director.  It is sung in Russian, even though, in the post-performance discussion, we were told that only three of the team members can speak Russian.

Although this opera has three Acts (six Scenes) and took over 3 hours, it is so successful in grabbing the audience’s attention that it is never boring or disappointing.

As usual, the three-dimensional effect achieved by the high-tech set is very impressive, especially in contrast to the slow and rhythmic opening music. It was interesting to see the multiple projectors that are used along with the sloping stage props to create a sense of space. The bright colors of the costumes harmonize with the stage set. The duet between the prince and Lisa is exceedingly beautiful, both joyful and sad.

The performance is precise, serious and careful with much care and attention given to details. The prince condescended to express his affection for his lover. “I am ready to do anything for you, dearest, trust me! “ What a perfect interpretation of love!

Hermann is brilliantly enacted by Michael Boley, with his  wonderful tenor voice, and extraordinary bearing. The humble characters’ double desire for money and love, even greed, despair and unwillingness in the face of the prince’s rival, are vividly presented. Michael’s performance is free and easy, dashing, and free-spirited.

The countess’s performance conveyed someone old, powerful, always longing for love, falling into memory and falling asleep. She is lost in the Capital World: Money, Love, Life, Family! This is perfect team work. You can feel the strong spirit of cooperation between them.

Rhoslyn Jones is the soul of the team with her sincere, generous performance and beautiful soprano voice.

The post-performance discussion, de-costumed performers on stage with their director, Maestro Marcovich, elucidated the intricacies of mounting a performance on tight budget and schedule. West Bay Opera achieves a stellar result, far beyond what might be expected from a relatively modest resourced, primarily semi-professional team, buttressed infused by internationally experienced professionals. In contrast to musical theatre production, where lyrics and music are be honed during an extended rehearsal schedule; artists arrive at a West Bay kick-off rehearsal, knowing their roles cold! With knowledge assumed, the parsimonious rehearsal regime works! A member of the cast noted the ever-renewing social ties among her West Bay peers, “you make new connections and renew them twenty years later. Were all Bay Areaish.”

Liza’s suicide scene

In the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it was asked if there had been any push back to the performance of a Russian opera during an era of disengagement from Russia, including education-based firms like Coursera. While the director reported an occasional questioning email; he was confident that keeping cultural links intact was congruent with protest of a geopolitical misadventure. The line “I am lost” from Pique Dame may be taken as a metaphor for a contemporary Russia gone rogue. Pushkin and Tchaikovsky express universal values that should be celebrated even as Beethoven continued to be played during the Second World War.

During a proxy “Warm War” it is important to keep contact with Russia and Russians, some of whom bravely denounce while others erroneously support the invasion. Moreover, cultural and academic contacts were initial steps, opening the way to resolving the Cold War. War criminals and committers of acts of genocide are targeted for arrest and prosecution by an international array of legal and software resources, tracking down visual and physical evidence, seeking conviction and deterrence.

The countess in her bedroom

Someday, the fraught events in Bucha, the Avistoval metal works, the Kiev presidential HQ with its writers’ room, the refugee flows from and returning to Ukraine may be the future subject of the grandest of opera tragedy, transcending the St Petersburg riverscape of Tsarist regime unraveling, preceding downfall, depicted by Pushkin and Tchaikovsky in their perspicacious meso-opera.

Information about West Bay Opera

All photos by Otak Jump


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