Notes and Editorial Reviews
Prokofiev's second opera is his most extreme, in its musical language if not in its story-line. In Dostoyevsky's short story no one actually dies, not even the mega-rich, ailing aunt Babulenka, whose death is eagerly anticipated by the three other main characters who stand to profit by it (instead she gambles away enough of her fortune to reduce them to despair). No acts of physical violence take place comparable to those in Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel. Instead the drama turns on humiliation.
Alexey, the eponymous Gambler, is the most conspicuously on the receiving end. A nobleborn teacher in the service of Babulenka's nephew (the retired General), he has a love-hate relationship with the General's step-daughter Pauline, who
makes him gamble with her money and humiliates him by forcing him to insult others for her amusement. She in turn has a love-hate relationship with the Marquis, who has a hold over her via the General's debts. Thinking to rid her of that hold, Alexis wins a colossal fortune and offers it to her. Seeing only further humiliation in this, however, she scorns the offer, leaving Alexey in despair.
Despite Diaghilev's qualms, Prokofiev was not to be deterred from his resolve to set the story, and to set it using the peculiar Russian branch of Dialogue Opera that abandons all set pieces and rounded forms for the sake of supposed Realism and truthfulness to the text. It's in the nature of the beast that there is little by way of memorable vocal writing. None of the characters steps outside the unfolding events into lyrical self-dec]aration, and it's left to the orchestra to offer psychological commentary on the goings-on, which it does in the most modernist language Prokofiev could conceive around 1916.
So The Gambler is a somewhat specialized experience. It demands a double act of empathy on the part of the western listener. One to engage with a little-known musical tradition where 'normal' operatic expectations are deliberately not gratified; and a further one, perhaps easier, to sense the powerful affinity of the Russian soul with the act of gambling, which it looks on not judgmentally or with reprehension, but as symbolic of self-destructive obsession, the workings of Fate, and more.
For anyone willing and able to make those leaps, this new recording should be a compelling experience. Gergiev here confirms the justness of all the superlatives that have been lavished on him, and his orchestra play like beings possessed, which is the only way to do justice to a piece like this. The sense of impending doom is powerfully conveyed, and in the big gambling scene of Act 4 the tension is screwed up to an extraordinary pitch.
The cast is reasonably strong. Vladimir Galuzin shows stamina and fine dramatic presence as Alexey, and Sergei Alexashkin is appropriately solid as the General. I can imagine a more effective Pauline than the rather ordinary Ljuba Kazarnovskaya. But when Elena Obraztsova enters as Babulenka, with a voice that would curdle milk at a hundred paces, there's a real frisson of theatrical presence, and the rest of the performance never looks back.
A powerful rival version from the Bolshoi enjoyed a brief CD incarnation on Olympia (10/88). But this new arrival from the Maryinsky/ Kirov surpasses it in almost every respect. Recording quality is also superior, not only to that rival but also to the patched-together live recordings which are the norm for this valuable Russian opera series.
-- DJF, Gramophone [10/1999]
Works on This Recording
Gambler, Op. 24 by Sergei Prokofiev
Vladimir Galusin (Tenor),
Sergei Alexashkin (Bass),
Elena Obraztsova (Mezzo Soprano),
Luba Kazarnovskaya (Soprano),
Nikolai Gassiev (Tenor),
Valery Lebed (Bass),
Marianna Tarasova (Mezzo Soprano),
Victor Vikhrov (),
Andrei Khramstov (Bass),
Yuri Laptev (Tenor)
Kirov Theater Orchestra,
Kirov Theater Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1917/1928; USSR
Date of Recording: 03/1996
Venue: MCO, Hilversum, The Netherlands
Length: 114 Minutes 44 Secs.
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