Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Gambling on Sergei

The Gambler
Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Production by Temur Chkheidze
Conducted by Valery Gergiev
Starring Olga Guryakova, Olga Savova, Larissa Diadkova, Vladimir Galouzine, Nikolai Gassiev, John Hancock, Sergei Aleksashkin

The Metropolitan Opera
Performances on March 27-April 12, 2008

Why Sergei Prokofiev’s operas have never gained wider popularity is a mystery. The Russian master’s shattering music positively blazes throughout The Gambler, based on Dostoyevsky’s tale of dual obsessions with women and with gambling.

Prokofiev never played it safe; he loved grabbing audiences by their throats and keeping them on edge. But although his ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet have long since achieved classic status, his operas have had a rough go of it. Still, there’s no denying the immense power of The Fiery Angel and War and Peace, or the wondrous wit of The Love for Three Oranges and Betrothal in a Monastery. His first major operatic work, The Gambler straddles those two sound worlds, and the Met’s satisfying production makes a case for it as a 20th century masterpiece.

Set in a fictional German spa, The Gambler follows several characters faced with equally forbidding romantic and financial woes. Alexei tutors for a general’s family and loves Polina, the general’s ward. Meanwhile, the general is waiting for Polina’s granny to die so he can inherit a badly needed sum. Once granny arrives at the spa, she proceeds to gamble away astronomical amounts of money, leaving little for her heirs. The opera ends after Alexei has an unbelievable winning streak, the proceeds of which he offers to Polina, with surprising results.

Prokofiev’s brash, youthful score for The Gambler was composed in 1917 at age 26, but it wasn’t until 1929 that the opera – with revisions by the composer - finally got its stage premiere. The music is filled with the dissonance, rhythmic drive, and unforgettable melodies that are Prokofiev’s stock in trade. He deliberately set the words as closely as possible to actual patterns of Russian speech, so that it sometimes sounds close to recitative, yet he peppers the vocal lines with catchy melodic phrases.

As conducted by Prokofiev specialist Valery Gergiev and played by the first-class Met Orchestra, The Gambler is revealed as a thrilling, musically adventurous drama that rarely comes up for air. The amazing sequence during which Alexei’s unlikely winnings are piling up is superbly played by the orchestra under Gergiev’s taut direction, causing the audience to hold its collective breath in anticipation of the inevitable, brilliantly-realized climax.

That the above scene is played out on an oversize roulette wheel is typical of Temur Chkheidze’s adroit production, which recreates the insular world of these characters, surrounded as they are by designer George Tsypin’s gold-plated, spiral columns and James F. Ingalls’ dramatically precise lighting. (The enormous, revolving lighting grid suspended above the action resembles a roulette wheel, of course.) The opera’s major roles are undertaken by several estimable Russian singers, including Vladimir Galouzine as Alexei, Olga Guryakova as Polina and - in a delicious, scene-stealing turn - Larissa Diadkova as Granny.

The Met’s revivals this season of War and Peace and The Gambler are merely the beginnings of a welcome flood of Prokofiev. This summer’s Bard Music Festival will celebrate Prokofiev and His World, and next season will bring two major events at Lincoln Center: Gergiev will lead several Great Performers programs of Prokofiev’s symphonies, concertos and stage works, while the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will present a mini-festival of the composer's rarely-heard works for small forces. Obviously, it’s better late than never to hear Prokofiev's endlessly fascinating, witty, and gorgeous music.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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