Notes and Editorial Reviews
"Because they so frequently rely on manipulation of such fundamentally narrative elements as point of view, major canonical novels of the last two centuries do not as a rule adapt well to the stage; and Dostoyevsky's, with their psychological exploration and philosophical conversation, are especially recalcitrant raw material for operatic librettos. But in 1915, Prokofiev's unruly and feverish muse was oddly aligned with Dostoyevsky's—even more so than Janácek's was when he set House of the Dead—and the result was arguably his tightest and most powerful opera.
Granted, even more than most other operas in the Russian tradition, The Gambler is a parasitic work—that is, one that depends on the audience's prior
familiarity with its literary source. Indeed, even Dostoyevsky's novella itself—in the form of a diary that begins in medias res—plows so giddily through the waves created at the mythical Roulettenburg by a Russian family and its hangers-on that the spray of unanswered questions, unexplained relationships, and unresolved plot strands drenches its readers in ambiguity. But the original is a model of clarity and poise next to Prokofiev's Soap-Opera Digest version, which (although it manages, to a surprising degree, to incorporate chunks of Dostoyevsky's original text) simply abandons any attempt to clarify the motivations of the characters—indeed, abandons what minimal plot resolution there is by stopping so unexpectedly three-quarters of the way through the novel that you're apt to expect a fifth act.
But if there was ever a musical analog to Dostoyevsky's art, this is it. It's not only that Prokofiev manages to find extraordinary rhythmic vitality in a prose style often deemed flat-footed. More important, in his best breathlessly nervous mood, he captures the novel's paradoxically single-minded unsteadiness—its relentless obsession (with a perverse combination of money, sex, power, and self-abasement) fused with its manic shifts of mood as the self-willed and inconsistent characters continually redefine themselves in a constantly changing web of adversarial relationships. And Prokofiev does this, in typical Dostoyevskyian fashion, more by daring juxtaposition than by careful development of his musical ideas, ideas that alternately support and undermine the surface events in the text. The small, whimsical gesture that accompanies Blanche's hopeful question about Grandmama's presumably impending death; the inappropriately light skipping music as Alexei talks, in act I, of going mad; the sticky lyricism with which Alexei tells Pauline of how she tortures him and the hallucinatory, almost rotten, music as she asks him if he is willing to kill for her; the ominous farce (almost Bergian in spirit) as Grandmama's servant keeps the General from her room, a farce that suddenly gains force as it twists itself into the General's fit that ends act III; the painful climax of the "love duet" in act IV: The Gambler is a musical mosaic—even a whirlpool—of extraordinary emotional complexity, one that, for all its manic juxtapositions of unprepared musical events, builds inevitably to Alexei's destruction.
Lazarev's new reading may not be quite as tight as Rozhdestvensky's performance (once available on CBS/Melodiya 34579), and it may not reach quite the same intensity in the climaxes of the outer acts. But Lazarev catches the music's kaleidoscopic qualities neatly (note, for instance, how well he engineers the transition from Alexei's hysterical discussion with Astley to the arrival of the Marquis in act II), and he's supported by good ensemble playing in the often-hectic orchestral part. As for the singers—they, too, have the esprit de corps demanded by this conversational opera, where the characters are defined almost entirely in terms of their relations to other people. Granted, Avdeyeva's Grandmama could be sterner, just as Korolev's Marquis could be oilier. But once past her somewhat matronly opening, Karashvili conveys Pauline's self-lacerating pride with conviction, and Maslennikov is equally at home in Alexei's high-wire self-deception.
All in all, a major recording that deserves the highest recommendation."
Peter J. Rabinowitz, Fanfare [9/1989]
Reviewing original release of this recording, Melodiya 3013
Works on This Recording
Gambler, Op. 24 by Sergei Prokofiev
Alexandre Ognivtsev (Bass),
Makvala Kasrashvili (Soprano),
Alexei Maslennikov (Tenor)
Bolshoi Theatre Chorus,
Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1917/1928; USSR
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