GamblerSergei Prokofiev - The Gambler

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin, 2008 | Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Vladimir Ognovenko, Kristine Opolais, Misha Didyk, Stefania Toczyska | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Dostoevsky’s short novella The Gambler is usually paired in book form with Poor Folk, the two stories reflecting rather contrasting themes and styles, but also in a way complementing each other. In Poor Folk, (if memory serves me correctly) a letter-writing couple find that their choices are limited, and the nature of their love defined and denied by the more pressing efforts put into simply struggling to exist. The characters in The Gambler on the other hand may appear to have so much money that they can fritter thousands away on the spin of a roulette wheel, but in reality they are similarly trapped in a lifestyle that restricts and distorts their course of their lives and their actions towards other people. In many ways both stories say a lot about social distinctions, but more in a way that reveals various attitudes and aspects of the Russian character.

Prokofiev’s opera version of The Gambler adheres fairly closely to the characters, themes and narrative of Dostoevsky’s book, the action set in a resort town of Roulettenburg, where the General, his family and entourage are staying at a hotel and making use of its casino. Alexsy, the tutor, has recklessly lost all of the General’s step-daughter Polina’s money on a game of roulette, but is determined to do everything he can to not so much win it back – though that would help – as much as win her favour. Polina however is toying with him, at the same time as accepting the advances of the Marquis, urging Alexsy on to act outrageously towards Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm. The General meanwhile is in serious debt to the Marquis, but is expecting to gain an inheritance from the imminent demise of his mother. His engagement to Blanche rests on this inheritance also, since it is clear that she will not stick around unless the money comes through. To everyone’s great surprise however, the ailing old lady, Babulenka, thought to be on the point of death, turns up in Roulettenburg, with her own ideas on how to spend her money.

Composed in 1916, The Gambler is a little-known and rarely performed early Prokofiev work, and it’s not the easiest opera to like. It’s filled with unsympathetic, rather hateful characters whose sense of reality and the nature of their relationships with other people have been corrupted by money.  The music and singing moreover are not exactly harmonious – you won’t find any hummable arias here. On the other hand, the rising fever pitch that eventually explodes in Act 4 (with some magnificent singing in the last two Acts) is perfectly appropriate for qualities and themes of Dostoevsky’s work, and those are brought out exceptionally well in controversial director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging for the 2008 production at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin. A modern-day staging (there’s nothing in this opera that fixes it in any period, and the themes are completely relevant and modern), Tcherniakov assists in putting across the complexity of the relationships between the characters by allowing different rooms of the hotel and casino to be seen simultaneously in a kind of split-screen form, adding to the picture we have of the personalities, even contradicting and contrasting what is being said by the characters with what is really going on behind the scenes.

Prokofiev’s score does much the same thing, underscoring the behaviour of the characters with emphatic woodwind trills, staccato strings and deep notes from the brass section. The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the Blu-ray disc is marvellous for capturing the huge dynamic range of the score, balancing the mix superbly between the singing and the orchestra. Partly that’s down to the scoring being composed not to compete with the singing but rather support it, partly that’s down to Barenboim’s management of the orchestra, and partly it’s down to the excellent surround mix. Consequently the singing dominates and is strong and clear, but when the orchestral parts and flourishes are called for, they are almost overwhelmingly powerful. The 1080/60i transfer is perfectly clear, the direction for television (with some side-stage angles) capturing the flow of what is occurring on the stage. Other than some brief notes in the booklet, there are no extra features on the disc.