, June 2011
The Gambler, based on the Dostoyevsky novella of the same name, is Prokofiev’s most challenging opera for the listener, though it is far from avant-garde for its time. While it is true that The Fiery Angel (1919–27) has some difficult patches in its otherworldly character, it is still relatively traditional alongside the declamatory, through-composed style of The Gambler. As those familiar with the opera are aware, Prokofiev, who wrote his own libretto, truncated Dostoyevsky’s story, a gutsy move considering the fact the novella is considered a literary masterpiece. But Prokofiev’s story works better here, because its blunt ending perfectly fits his often “steely” music and the heartless emotions of many of his characters. As for the work’s artistic merit, it is among the stronger operas from the first half of the 20th century and certainly one of Prokofiev’s greatest, standing with The Fiery Angel and War and Peace (1941–52), of the eight he composed.
The first recording of The Gambler to attain wide availability in the West was a 1977 Columbia/Melodiya 3-LP set led by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. In fact, as far as I can tell that release, originally taped in the USSR in 1966, was the first complete recording of the work. It was a good one. A 1982 effort by Alexander Lazarev and the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus, which appeared on a Melodiya/Australia CD around 1990, was also quite good, if you could stand the dreadful sound: the singers had microphones placed down their throats while the orchestra played at a distance. Gergiev’s Kirov effort was issued in 1999 on Philips and trumped all the competition up to that point. His tempos were brisk, coming in seven minutes ahead of Lazarev and ten minutes or so ahead of Rozhdestvensky, and the resulting breathless take on the work was exciting from start to finish.
Here Barenboim is nearly fourteen minutes longer than Gergiev, and while his way with the work is less driven, he captures the freneticism, the desperation and the emotional pitch of this colorful opera just as convincingly. Moreover, his effort is for the moment the only video recording of the work available. But even if there were more competition in the DVD realm, I suspect Barenboim would be hard to surpass.
When this production was presented in Berlin in March, 2008, the critics hailed it as a brilliant effort in virtually every respect, and audiences responded in kind. The La Scala performances the following June, for some reason, were less successful with critics. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production takes the work out of the 19th century with contemporary costumes and sets. On stage there is a sterile, cold look, with plenty of shiny steel in view: notice the steel pillars across the stage, and the steel-framed windows in Alexei’s room. Their presence apparently symbolizes a hardness to the emotions of the characters in the opera and, some would say, to Prokofiev’s music. True, the score lacks lush themes and while the opera is all about gambling—gambling on the roulette wheel, and, more importantly, gambling in life—the music has a measure of feeling in its dark lyricism especially after Babulenka arrives at the casino. Admittedly, it hardly wallows in empathy for its mostly hapless characters. The music does push them along, however, seeming to goad them toward their inevitable tragedies.
Misha Didyk as Alexei and Kristine Opolais as Polina in the leads are outstanding. They work splendidly as both lovers and adversaries. Didyk has a charisma in his boyish exuberance and charm, and Opolais has a voice that matches her physical beauty and alluringly mysterious manner. Vladimir Ognovenko as the General is excellent, his bass voice resounding in power and depth. He is the embodiment of desperation, of greed, of longing for youthful love. Sylvia De La Muela as the beautiful young Blanche, the object of the General’s affections, is deliciously opportunistic and cheap. The rest of the cast, including the brilliant Stefania Toczyska as Babulenka, are totally convincing.
Barenboim, as suggested above, captures the full measure of this complex score, and his orchestra and chorus respond with total commitment. The camera work is excellent and the sound vivid. This opera, with its utterly thrilling roulette scene (track 21), which features breathlessly-paced singing and a vicarious sense of triumph for you the viewer as Alexei keeps winning, is a rather unique experience in all of opera. Listeners and watchers of this work may find themselves drawn into its addictive world of spinning wheels and love triangles, into a realm where fate and luck are the same thing, into the obsessions and fears of Prokofiev’s twisted but somehow familiar characters. This is a major triumph.