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The Dazzling and the Desperate

New York
Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Centre
03/27/2008 -  & April 4, 8, 12 (matinee)
Sergei Prokofiev: The Gambler

Olga Guryakova (Polina), Vladimir Galouzine (Alexei), Sergei Aleksashkin (The General), Larissa Diadkova (Grammy), Olga Savova (Mme Blanche), Nikolai Gassiev (The Marquis), John Easterlin (Prince Nilsky), John Hancock (Mr. Astley), Diego Matamoros (Potapich), James Courtney (Baron Würmerhelm), Paul Plishka (Director), Ronald Naidi, Jeremy Little (Croupiers), LeRoy Lahr (Fat Englishman), Michael Devilin (Tall Englishman), Katherine Whyte (Garish Lady), Yvonne Redman (Pale Lady), Edyta Kulczak (The Lady “Comme ci, comme ça”), Jane Shaulis (Venerable Lady), Kathryn Day (Suspicious Old Lady), Vladimir Grishko (Reckless Gambler), Bernard Fitch (Sickly Gambler), Anthony Laciura (Hunchback Gambler), David Won (Unlucky Gambler), Philip Cocorinos (Old Gambler)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Valery Gergiev (Conductor)
Temur Chkheidze (Production), George Tsypin (Set Designer), Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili (Costume Designer), James F. Ingalls (Lighting Designer)

Sergei Prokofiev’s first opera, The Gambler, is scary, funny, wicked, cynical and given a production which is grand enough and magnificent enough under Valery Gergiev to be the most astonishing Metropolitan Opera production this year.

Granted, I had never seen it on stage before (though it’s been at the Met for seven seasons), but a study of score and libretto made me feel that the work might actually be boring. Without a single aria, with only a brief chorus near the end, with Russian conversations, and a cast of characters who were uniformly nasty, what could this opera hold for any audience? The answer: the pleasure of seeing those nasty people get their comeuppance, and with music that was as spellbinding at the production itself.

Every single one of the cast, at a mid-19th Century casino hotel (it seemed very much like Baden-Baden), is a beggar for money. An old General borrows money incessantly from a scheming Marquis. His daughter has whored herself in the past with the same Marquis. The closest thing to a hero, Alexis, is madly in love with the daughter, but only for sex, and confesses to wanting to devour her by killing her. An old Grandma rises from the deathbed to play roulette, betting only on the “Zero” in order to bankrupt her relatives. This was Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical novella, and this is what the 25-year-old enfant terrible Prokofiev plagiarized wholesale to make his first opera.

How does it work here? First, the sets are astonishing. Outside of a little corner bed, where Alexei takes refuge from this wicked family, we have different vantage points of the hotel lobby. It is bezique-table green, with moldings of gold and silver reaching to the sky. The cyclorama is mainly green, but clouds (and sometimes magical horses) pass by. And at the top is a huge roulette wheel, which alters its shape like an astronomical gyroscope. In the finale, it descends to the populace like Edgar Allen Poe’s pendulum. Very scary. And in the famous penultimate scene, a huge roulette wheel is on the stage floor, with all the characters scrambling around it in chaotic frenzy.

Second, the movements of the actors are brilliantly arranged. The opera is like almost like a silent film (Prokofiev wrote it in 1913), the characters coming and going for no particular reason, moving back and forth jerkily, sporadically. Yet, unlike the stylized movements of the Met’s production of Barber of Seville, the music is so quick, the characters so eccentric that one feels less movement than propulsion, a kinetic energy which never stops.

Then we have Prokofiev’s libretto. For this, one should know Russian – or, as I did – study that libretto in English so one could watch the stage movements. (The only change in translation was when a nasty crack of “the house of Rothschild” in the original was changed to the “House of Hoppe”. Hmm, I wonder why!) For the rest, this is quick, conversational, yet leading for inevitable tragedy.

But above all, The Gambler is an opera. The people sing their roles, with all the power of sharp-tongued drama, but the voices are astonishingly fit for the part. Olga Guryakova as the girl who is obsessed over by the men has such drama in her soprano that in the final scene where she goes from whore to mendicant to an enigma is an essay in hysteria (albeit with some terrific high notes). Larissa Diadkova (who is actually Tatar) is evil and funny as the grandmother. Sergei Aleksashkin is upright and tense and desperate as the General. His Mad Scene is part vaudeville, part pathos. Vladimir Galouzine is the young tutor who is the centerpiece of the action. He is no hero, no cad, he is obsessive and obsessed, a victim of gambling as well as its winner. Next to the others, he looks sane, but the reality, as we learn in the final moment, is quite the opposite.

But above all, The Gambler is an alliance between Prokofiev and Gergiev down in the pit. The genius of the composer is that, with all the orchestral tricks at his disposal, without a single boring moment, the orchestration is so transparent that each word suing is perfectly heard. The genius of Gergiev is that he never ever let down in the energy and excitement of the theater.

For theater this is. Partly theater of the absurd, partly tragedy, part vaudeville, but all of it scenically and musically cosmic.

Harry Rolnick



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