‘A Night at the Gaming Tables’ at The Russian Chamber Art Society

The annual event of the Russian Chamber Art Society featured highlights from Tchaikovsky’s Opera 'The Queen of Spades'

Love and money: when fated to compete, can the fight ever be fair? Or is it—and are the parties caught between them—invariably, if not inevitably, doomed?

The Russian Romantic poet, playwright, and novelist Alexander Pushkin implicitly posed these questions in his short story “The Queen of Spades.” His compatriot, composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, after initial hesitation, would consummately tailor and, in so doing, indelibly amplify them in his opera of the same name. The Russian Chamber Art Society’s (RCAS) recent concert performance of excerpts from the opera reflected an understanding at once intuitive and informed, as well as musically and emotionally invested, bringing some in the audience to tears, and many to their feet.

Vera Danchenko-Stern speaking at "A Night at the Gaming Tables."
Vera Danchenko-Stern speaking at “A Night at the Gaming Tables.”

The soloists—Jennifer Casey Cabot, soprano; Monika Krajewska, mezzo-soprano; Viktor Antipenko, tenor; and Susana Poretsky, mezzo-soprano—were joined by pianist-accompanists Vera Danchenko-Stern and Genadi Zagor, with the award-winning veteran actor Rick Foucheux as narrator.

In opening remarks by RCAS president Mary Kruger, we were told that John Beyrle, now a fluent Russian speaker and the former U.S. ambassador to Russia who was to have delivered them (but had been called away), had found the Pushkin short story upon which the opera is nominally based so daunting, he almost quit studying Russian.

That Tchaikovsky himself—whose oeuvre is often unjustly downplayed as a pleasant amalgam of soaring symphonies, ballets of sweeping passion, and rousing overtures—would choose to compose an opera (in fact, his tenth) so terrifyingly dark and desperate as to cause him at one point to write that he had “suffered and felt vividly all of what is happening in the opera (to such an extent that for a time I feared the appearance of the ghost of the Queen of Spades)” might commend it—and not just to the Tchaikovsky aficionado, but to the knowledgeable and intellectually curious listener and reader—on that account alone.

That it is an acknowledged masterwork with graceful melodies set against complex harmonies and steadily escalating tensions that strike the ear and heart with the force of a musical gut-punch, conveyed here with the consummate skill of these six musicians, made the performance all the more wrenching and compelling.

Beginning with the overture, condensed and transcribed for piano, Vera Danchenko-Stern’s dexterous, expansive hands and extended fingers ranged across the keyboard with the musical intensity and orchestral fidelity of the original. As if in the theater, our attention suddenly shifted to the back of the auditorium as Rick Foucheux’s familiar voice, at once sonorous and conversational, drew us into the story as he made his way up the aisle toward the stage and, playbook in hand, assumed a collegially informal position on the steps at stage left.

It was a felicitous pairing. Foucheux, a self-confessed Tchaikovsky fan, had done similar work for RCAS’s October 2016 production of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky: An Immortal Meeting of Russian Romantics. In fact, throughout the evening his eyes never left the musicians, his artistic being seeming as one with the searing urgency of this tragic tale.

Interspersed with Foucheux’s narration, the four singers appeared in various combinations, bringing vividly to life the eight selected excerpts and their respective characters. Having been told the story’s outline—Hermann, an army officer whose obsession with gambling in the abstract becomes a plan to act on it when he meets with a combination of jealousy, envy, greed, and irresistible opportunity—it was somewhat surprising, though pleasantly so, that the first selection was the exquisite “Liza and Polina’s Duet.” Here, Cabot and Krajewska, as the woman of Hermann’s dreams and her sister, blended euphoniously, at turns sweetly and lushly, Cabot’s top notes with a diamantine sparkle and clarity. In the next, “Polina’s Romance,” Krajewska’s rich timbre possessed the ebony intensity of a contralto and the bronzed coloration and penetration of a spinto.

Picking up the story’s thread with Hermann’s growing obsession (the stage’s entire back wall now covered with a huge color photo of a dealer’s hands at a casino card table, the Queen of Spades prominently displayed against bright red hearts), we moved next to “Liza’s Aria.” Its strong contrast in mood and tone, its dramatic arc of doubts and declamations, trembling fear and passion, was thrust home by Cabot’s thrilling top notes, her expressive eyes almost visibly changing color in concert with the young woman’s mercurial humors.

In “Hermann’s Aria,” Antipenko’s heartrending cries of agony at Liza’s indifference ranged from desperately imploring, to shivering, to screaming—yet always, gorgeously golden.

Poretsky owned the “Countess Scene,” in which the old woman, Liza’s grandmother and the holder of the secret Hermann seeks, bitterly bemoans the state of the world today. Her voice cracking, then heavy, then shrill, her Countess doddering on a plain brown cane, Poretsky’s rendition was a minor master class in interpretive singing.

In the aria’s conclusion, the Countess recalls, with the resentful wisdom that comes with dissatisfied old age, laced with the tenderness of memory of times long past, the words of the song she sang as a young woman at Versailles. Its final words, “Je sens mon coeur qui bat, qui bat / Je ne sais pas pourquoi (I feel the beating of my heart / But I do not know why)”, in Poretsky’s capable hands, were a powerful summation of the Countess’s circumstances and mindset. As his hands assiduously and sympathetically accompanied her voice, Zagor’s eyes did the same with her every breath and motion, a fusion of two musicians in tune with and service to their muse.

In Antipenko’s next (and climactic) aria, Hermann’s manic side emerged with even greater emphasis and impact, his eyes blazing, his voice ringing with fury, his threats now alternating with gentle imploring, the piano following him in passion and intensity, matching him in volume. When Hermann matched his threats with words, however, and strangled the terrified old woman—as magnificent as the three of them were—there was, unlike with every other number, no applause. There was only a horrified hush in the audience; a deathly stillness.

(Now at one remove from the experience, as a critic, I must say: Bravo, bravissimo. Now that’s show business!)

Foucheux’s next reading informed us that Hermann felt no remorse, though he was “upset.” He will soon become even more so when the Countess’s vengeful ghost appears. She does have a bit of a bet for him, however, one that the man who never wagers cannot resist: she will tell him the secret he sought so that he can win what one could say is two hands: one, at the gaming table, the other, Liza’s. Why the Countess, who was lovingly cared for by her granddaughter, would want to chain her to a madman, no matter how much she ostensibly loves him, is never explained.

In “Liza’s Arioso,” the young woman’s doubt—how could her beloved have committed such a heinous crime? Impossible! And where is he? (not to mention the joy and youthful idealism of that earlier sisterly duet)—is expressed in coruscating peals of anguish, followed by ecstatic relief at his arrival.

The latter, filled with Cabot’s and Antipenko’s glorious singing, turns out to be all too short-lived when Hermann tries to carry Liza away—no, not to the church, but to the casino, so that he can play the three cards and win the “piles of gold” that “are waiting for me there.” Once more, the rich melding of voices and piano, which did not lack for, and was in fact reinforced by, a meticulously clear articulation of individual lines, intertwined like sculpted strands of rare metals, brought home the stakes at play.

Approaching the story’s climactic moment, Foucheux read of the fateful wager, his words imbued at once with the casual assurance-cum-indifference, real or feigned, of the bettor and the quiet wisdom of the narrator. In the final aria, a crazed Hermann, having wagered everything and lost it all, caustically declares life “a game,” and “good and evil . . . no more than dreams,” then violently curses the old woman whose ghost he sees. Once again, Antipenko’s impassioned rendering of the character’s emotions (and rending of our own), his high notes pinging with pitch-perfect acuity and virtually ringing from the rafters, made his Hermann a man to be pitied as much as despised.

Of course, the man who sang him—and the man who accompanied him, the women who joined and completed them musically, and the man who did so, narratively—were to be, and most assuredly were, neither one. Rather, they were greeted by a brief stunned silence that slowly found its voice, hands and feet, some attendees ignoring the alluring summons of the sumptuous buffet that awaited. If life is indeed a game, this evening we’d been dealt a winning hand.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes.

A Night at the Gaming Tables by the Russian Chamber Art Society, played Thursday, June 7, 2018, at the Embassy of France / La Maison Française – 4101 Reservoir Road, in Washington, DC. For tickets to future performances, call 703-354-7354, or purchase them online.