Russian opera, in spades, with a Tchaikovsky classic

On a warm Saturday evening in Hollywood, the audience seated at the Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church was transported back in time to the middle of the 19th century, to witness a tale about the madness of love and sickness of money. Independent Opera Company of Los Angeles set about bringing to life Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed opera, The Queen of Spades, on a modest scale and budget. Artistic and musical director, Galina Barskaya, clearly has a passion for this music, as was apparent in her accompaniment throughout the performance.

The stage direction came from Carson Gilmore, who led the charge in transforming the scene with scant resources though the audience was none the wiser. The singers moved naturally and comfortably on the small stage while the grandeur of the story was never diminished. Aiding in the storytelling was a solo modern ballet dance during the overture and musical interludes. The dancer, Liza Barskaya, made for a convincing and alluring portrayal of Death.

Roksana Zeinapur and William Grundler in ‘Queen of Spades’, 2017

Casting the roles likely proved the most difficult, as most American audiences are used to Russian operas sung with much heavier voices. Singing the title role of Hermann, said to be “the Othello of Russian opera”, was tenor William Grundler. As a young singer, Grundler has a light yet rich vocal quality that is placed well to sing diverse repertoire. His Russian diction was well practiced and clear, and his portrayal of the mad young man who throws away his love for riches was solid. He managed his way through the heavy repertoire by singing carefully and lightly, although one wished for moments where the voice would sing a true forte in the higher registers.

Russian-American soprano, Roksana Zeinapur, was a lovely and authentic Liza. Her voice was silvery and pure as she portrayed innocence and loneliness. Her upper register showed some tension in the jaw and tongue, which may be attributed to the opera’s long passages in the passaggio and can lead to fatigue.

Mezzo-soprano Erin Murphy turned in another notable performance as the Countess: she was grand and cold and sharp and witty. Her voice was ideally cast, and one couldn’t imagine seeing better in a major opera house. The young Tiffany Ho was a lovely Prilepa in the second act “opera within an opera”. Her voice was light and flawless, while her acting was charming and engaging. Rachel Labovitch was tasked with the contralto role of Pauline and the traditional double-casting of Milovzor, which she performed with grace and ease.

Overall, the supporting cast and chorus remained in character and aided the story. The chorus may have needed a conductor, or even a head nod here and there, to help with tricky entrances. That could easily have been achieved by setting the piano on the floor in front, versus at the back of the stage.

Of all his operas, Tchaikovsky was said to be most proud of The Queen of Spades, and Barskaya couldn’t agree more. One could imagine listening to her play the entire opera and sing all the parts herself, and it would be equally entertaining. For young singers just starting out, the Independent Opera Company is a great place to test the waters and get important stage experience. Bravo to the company for a job well done.

Photos courtesy Independent Opera Company

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