Tchaikovsky is a genius who revels in obsession. And while a semi-staged production of his highly evocative three-act opera Pique Dame might seem a treatment unbefitting his brilliant work, the latest production at the Academy of Vocal Arts gave the audience lots to marvel at musically – beautiful composition and gorgeous voices, individually and combined – even if the production overall lacked some requisite luster.

Dominick Chenes and Marina Costa-Jackson © Paul Sirochman
Dominick Chenes and Marina Costa-Jackson
© Paul Sirochman

Pique Dame is a haunting, tragic tale that’s more Black Swan than Swan Lake. The audience feels nothing but frustration when the lovely Liza who is so capable of loving and worthy of being wholly loved in return is recklessly cast aside by the deranged Herman, obsessed with learning the secret of the cards, and the secret to obscene wealth. We can only shake our heads watching Herman’s downward spiral into madness as he chooses money over love, ruining Liza's fortunes as well. From the dour Countess to Herman’s fellow soldiers, there is no character the viewer really wants to cozy up to in this opera. Nothing really captures your heart but Tchaikovsky’s music.

In the hands of the Academy of Vocal Arts cast and crew, Pique Dame was a showcase of great and near-great voices, giving us glimmers into the composer’s genius and, in addition, into these young performers’ own considerable gifts as future stars of opera.

Soprano Marina Costa-Jackson as Liza is a consummate performer – her voice, her stage presence, her characterization were all spot on. She is simply lovely to watch and hear and has a masterful level of range and control. Whenever she sings softly, every audience member must hang on to her every note as I did. Mark my words, this young lady will someday sing in the greatest houses in the world and we will say “We knew her when she was a resident artist at AVA.” Her performance was one of the greatest treats of the evening.

Though the character Herman gets to take the final bow, tenor Dominick Chenes didn’t quite inhabit his role to the degree that the part demanded or to the extent that Costa-Jackson had done with her role. Since she played opposite him a great deal, the difference became even more obvious. His devolution into madness seemed to plateau in the second act just when it should have been deepest and most pronounced. During the final scene, his mad behavior didn’t match his fellow soldiers' recognition of it. While his tenor has a distinctive and highly compelling pinging quality to it, even in a semi-staged production, performers must call upon acting skills equal to their singing ability.

Michael Adams as Count Tomsky, Julia Dawson as Pauline, and Jared Bybee as Prince Yeletsky all turned in commendable performances. Kristina Nicole Lewis was a marvel singing the much-maligned Countess, a character at least three times the singer's age. Her ghostly voicings and appearances in the second half of the show raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

What then was the greatest part of the evening? Tchaikovsky’s music. His composition is so purposeful. One need only listen to “see” what is happening on stage. Where there might have been a harmonious blending of voices in the first act, it became almost cacaphony instead: a quintet inspired by Mozart that Tchaikovsky turned to haunting effect.

In another example, it is the music that tells us that Herman and Liza’s relationship is unraveling, even as they embrace one another. For instance, in a duet in the second half, each character is singing the same lines as the other, yet they are not signing the same lines together – ever.

Music director and pianist Ghenady Meirson’s miraculous single piano accompaniment allowed for an unvarnished or “unplugged” appreciation of Tchaikovsky’s artistry as a composer of opera. Certain Christian sects call the Holy Bible “god-breathed”. In a similar vein, I would call Meirson’s playing “Tchaikovsky-breathed.”

The only fault with the performance is that a semi-staging is the least effective way to present an opera, in my view. Either stage a show fully or wholly embrace the concert model: this version tries to straddle both, but is not enriched by the compromises required.