Prokofiev's opera The Gambler was composed in 1915-16 and revised in 1927. It had few performances during the composer's lifetime, mainly because it is not easy listening: it is a through-composed work with no arias, duets or other traditional numbers, and while it is not atonal or even avant garde for its day, it is a work whose themes come across as emotionally cool, especially because they are sometimes played or sung in fragmentary form. Moreover, the orchestra often carries the tunes, leaving the characters to sing a variant or harmonic line. That said, the score is exciting and brilliantly imaginative: to cite just one highlight, try the frenzied music in the big Act IV gambling scene, where the driving rhythms and headlong pacing propel the action along as the utterly obsessed gamblers sing in rapid-transit fashion to the spinning of the fickle but fateful roulette wheel.
Set in the fictional resort locale of Roulettenberg, The Gambler has a fairly complex story. To simplify things, it centers around the age-old themes of sex, money and obsession. There is the stormy relationship between lovers Alexei and Polina who have serious financial woes; the General, Polina's step-father, is deeply in debt to the Marquis and is carrying on an affair with the opportunistic and youthful Blanche. When the wealthy Grandmama (Polina's grandmother) arrives at the casino and heads to the roulette wheel, the plot takes a turn for the worse for most of the characters. I'll reveal little more but will say that "gambling" in this story encompasses gambling not only in the casino but in both love and life. Every major character is desperate here, and from the opening scene onward they act or react out of a sense of anxiety or impending doom.
To bring off this opera effectively, the conductor, for his part, must project energy and a sense of fanaticism. Gergiev accomplishes that, not least because he is very experienced in the works of Prokofiev, having recorded all the symphonies, concertos, several of the ballets and six of the eight operas. Indeed, this is Gergiev's second recording of The Gambler. The first was issued on a double-CD set on Philips in 1999. That effort had a duration of 115 minutes, while this new Blu-ray on the Marinsky Opera's own label clocks in about six minutes longer, after deducting some time for curtain calls and other segments not part of the performance. Thus, Gergiev is marginally more expansive here, though the music hardly sounds less energetic. If anything, it comes across as more driven and more powerful.
Some of the very same cast members have returned for this effort: Vladimir Galuzin as Alexei, Sergei Aleksashkin as the General, and Nikolai Gassiev as the Marquis. Each remains effective in his respective role, and while Galuzin would seem a little too old to portray the youthful Alexei, he is very convincing still, not least because his tenor voice is quite strong and more youthful than his middle-age looks. As for the rest of the cast, we have Tatiana Pavlovskaya as Polina, Larisa Dyadkova as Grandmama, and Alexander Gergalov as Mr. Astley. All are outstanding. Pavlovskaya is especially compelling in the final scene when her precarious relationship with Alexei turns feverish and more unstable, as emotions swing from love to resentment to humiliation and much else. I should mention that even the First Croupier, Sergei Semishkur, is splendid and is, not surprisingly, now a major star at the Mariinsky Theater, as well as on the international stage.
The production is a traditional one, with period costumes and simple but attractive sets that contribute effectively to the atmosphere. Some viewers may consider the gambling scene a little controversial: instead of using a spinning roulette wheel, the croupier turns and directs a wand at the winning player. Curious though that treatment may seem, it eliminates one problem: in just about any production of The Gambler you can't see the roulette ball in flight or precisely where it lands on the roulette wheel. You have to wait for reactions from the characters to determine the winner. It seems to me that I recall a Bolshoi production from the 1970s where a huge roulette wheel was used to solve visual shortcomings. Whatever the case, stage director Temur Chkheidze makes you aware of who the winner is on each spin, albeit in a manner that might shortchange some of the suspense. At the end of the gambling scene, the chorus is brought on stage to sing about Alexei's success, and to me this is one of the most ingenious touches in the production. When the chorus departs, you see Alexei lying on the floor, glutted with money, elated and dazed from his triumph. All in all, the production is excellent.
By my count this is the fifth complete recording of Prokofiev's opera The Gambler. I first learned the work from Rozhdestvensky's 1966 Melodiya recording, which would appear in the US in 1977 via a three-LP set on Columbia/Melodiya. Subsequently, there was a 1982 Bolshoi effort by Alexander Lazarev, issued on a 1990 Melodiya/Australia double CD set. Both of these efforts were good ones, though the latter had terrible sound reproduction: the orchestra was somewhat in the distance while the singers' vocal cords sounded but inches from the microphones! Then there are of course, the two excellent efforts by Gergiev. Gergiev would have the field to himself in the video realm except that Daniel Barenboim's 2008 DVD of The Gambler on Unitel Classica is also quite an imposing performance, as the cast and production are first rate. But this new Gergiev effort has the edge over the Bareboim both in sound reproduction and video quality. Moreover, some viewers may not like the modern treatment of the story used on the Barenboim recording. It's nice to have at least two excellent choices on video, but if I had to choose just one of them, I would opt for the Gergiev.
Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings