Notes and Editorial Reviews
Based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel of the same name, The Gambler is a dark study of human failings and the corruptive power of money.
In this work, everyone gambles: the hero Alexei, the General and even the wealthy aunt Babulenka gamble with money; Blanche, the Marquis and Polina – who loves Alexei – gamble with their fellow human beings. The results are humiliation, ruin and self-delusion.
The Staatskapelle Berlin under the baton of world-famous conductor Daniel Barenboim provides the orchestral sound to the full, lustrous voices of Misha Didyk, Kristine Opolais, Vladimir Ognovenko and Stefania Toczyska.
Directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, "a stroke of genius like Prokofiev's opera
itself" - FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG
Recorded live at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, March 2008.
Sylvia De La Muela
Director: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Conductor: Daniel Barenboim
Chorus Master: Eberhard Friedrich
Costume Design: Elena Zaitseva
Region: 1 (US and Canada)
Running Time: 135 minutes
Format: NTSC, Dolby 2.0
R E V I E W S:
This is a major triumph.
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 20
th 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 19
th 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.
-- Robert Cummings, MusicWeb International
Daniel Barenboim and Sergey Prokofiev might seem like an odd couple but then The Gambler, composed during the First World War and revamped during the ’20s, is not what we expect from Prokofiev. There is more lyrical invention in the opera than its reputation allows – still, it comes rather late in the day and is mainly associated with the elderly Babulenka’s return to Mother Russia rather than the central love interest. More problematic to Prokofiev’s admirers, given the cinematic specificity of his later work, is the frequent disconnect between the scherzo-ish furore in the orchestra and the detailed developments on stage.
In a recent Covent Garden production conducted by Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones set the opera at around the time of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, playing up its Dadaist zest, injecting humour. A polyglot cast sang in English. Dmitri Tcherniakov in Berlin has chosen to mirror the capitalist excesses of our own day and does so with tireless attention to detail, playing everything in the naturalistic style of a TV movie located in hotel lobbies and gaming rooms. This suits the conversational and/or declamatory vocal writing given here in the original Russian. One is reminded of Janácek and not just in the avoidance of set-piece arias. The designs, also credited to Tcherniakov, are unfussy, with modular stage spaces neatly dovetailed to echo the mutual dependencies of the cast and colour-coordinated in cobalt blue. The filming itself rather neatly anticipates this geometric theme as the audience settles down for the show. The milling crowds of extras in baseball caps, designer gear and/or mafia specs won’t please everyone but the approach makes more sense of the hyperactive plot and the interaction of the protagonists than any production I have seen. Kristine Opolais as Polina and especially Misha Didyk as Alexei both look and sound well: their closing scene is superbly directed and brought off with an emotional intelligence not necessarily apparent in the score.
Perhaps the biggest surprise comes in the pit. Barenboim, whose tendency to busk performances of familiar repertoire can embarrass discerning audiences, is here at his most obviously committed. He has found in the piece a depth and expressionist power that brings us close to the world of Wozzeck. A certain brittle capriciousness is sacrificed but the pertinence of Prokofiev’s brutal take on Dostoyevsky emerges more strongly than ever. All the subsidiary roles are well served and the sound is good, too. Strongly recommended.
— David Gutman, Gramophone
Works on This Recording
Gambler, Op. 24 by Sergei Prokofiev
Misha Didyk (Tenor),
Vladimir Ognovenko (Bass),
Stefania Toczyska (Mezzo Soprano),
Kristine Opolais (Soprano),
Viktor Rud (Voice),
Sylvia De La Muela (Voice)
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1917/1928; USSR
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