West Bay Opera, in ‘Spades’ 

Being 51 is no big deal, unless you’re an opera company. In marked contrast with Europe, where such organizations have existed for hundreds of years, opera is a relative newcomer here. West Bay Opera’s current 51st season makes it California’s second-oldest continuously operating company, after San Francisco’s 84-year-old monarch. (The Met is 127, Central City is 75, Fort Worth is an impressive 61, Chicago’s Lyric is 51, Los Anegles is a parvenu at 21.)

Besides its great age, Palo Alto’s West Bay Opera is also notable for its presentation of repertory slightly off the mainstream. Other companies, especially small ones (WBO is running on a half-million dollar budget vs. S.F. Opera’s $57 million), usually play it safe; not so West Bay, not in recent years, not under the new general director, José Luis Moscovich.

Halfway between strict tradition and the admirably hellbent novelty worship by the Berkeley and Oakland companies, WBO is planning this lineup for the next season: Wagner’s "The Flying Dutchman" (honestly!), Mozart’s "Cosi fan tutte" and what used to be a traditional double-bill, Mascagni’s "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo’s "Pagliacci."

Even the current production is a bit off the beaten path. Tchaikovsky’s "The Queen of Spades" is not exactly on top of the operatic hit parade. For every two dozen "Onegin" productions in the world, there may be one or two "Pikovaya Dama," rightly so when considering the former’s intricate psychological depth and musical riches.

As seen on Sunday, the double-cast opera had an impressive presentation. On Peter Crompton’s simple and highly functional set, director David F. Ostwald squeezed two dozen chorus members, beautifully costumed by Callie Floor, onto the Lucie Stern Theater’s postage-stamp sized stage. Heaven knows how an orchestra of 30 fit into the so-called pit, but under Ernest Frederic Knell’s baton, they still managed to play their hearts out.

Opera San Jose veterans shined here: tenor Adam Flowers as the dissolute Gherman, the man who will stop at nothing in search of the secret of winning cards; and Jason Detwiler, as the sonorous Prince Yeletsky, a big performance in a relatively small role, presence with a capital P, and the best Russian diction around (save for Elias Berezin’s Boy Commander).

One reason for the relative obscurity of "The Queen of Spades" is that Pushkin’s short story is told through Tchaikovsky’s music with only a few "really big numbers." One of those, however, is the Act 1 duet between Liza (Yeletsky’s intended and Gherman’s victim), and her friend, Polina.

It’s a quiet, wishful, affecting piece of music, a true highlight of the opera. On Sunday, it fell flat as a bliny, or a Russian pancake. It was a puzzling event because for the rest of the opera, Alaine Rodin (Liza) and Kathleen Moss (Polina) turned in solid, impressive vocal and acting work, individually and together. In fact, Rodin had a good day, with a finely-etched, well-sung performance in the starring role.

Barbara Staffen in the title role, Christopher S. Corley as Chekalinsky, Isaiah Musik-Ayala as Surin, and — especially — Igor Vieira as Gherman’s friend, Count Tomsky, contributed well to this fine ensemble production.

The Queen of Spades

Presented by West Bay Opera

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $25

Contact: (650) 424-9999 or www.wbopera.org

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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