Friday, 20 October 2017

Prokofiev - The Gambler (Vienna, 2017)

Sergei Prokofiev - The Gambler

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Simone Young, Karoline Gruber, Dmitry Ulyanov, Elena Guseva, Linda Watson, Misha Didyk, Thomas Ebenstein, Elena Maximova, Morten Frank Larsen, Pavel Kolgatin, Marcus Pelz, Clemens Unterreiner, Alexandru Moisiuc

Staastoper Live - 7th October 2017

Sergei Prokofiev's desire to write an opera based on Dostoevsky's The Gambler is an interesting one and comes at a significant point in Russian history. The Gambler is a short novella, but it deals with some fundamental Russian characteristics and behavioural traits that Prokofiev converts to the opera form in a stark and original manner. It's as if the composer were exploring the Russian character in a classic piece of literature and experimenting with it in a new form of musical expression. Completed in January 1917 however, Russia was about to embark on its own new direction with the 1917 February Revolution, leaving Prokofiev's opera unperformed and the composer himself soon afterwards going into exile.

The essential tone of The Gambler however is determined by its original author Fyodor Dostoevsky. Although it can be read as such, this was no academic study of the Russian propensity to throw their lives into the maw of fate, irrationally risking everything on the turn of a roulette wheel. As with much of Dostoevsky's work, The Gambler has the tortured quality of the author's own personal experience. That's vividly expressed in the writing and Prokofiev's brilliance was his ability to convert that obsessive quality into a driving dynamic music that pushes boundaries and yet remains essentially Russian in its character.

There's something of a revolutionary spirit in Alexei Ivanovich, or at least - since his concerns are very much self-obsessed - there's a certain disregard for the social order that he sees around him in the casino of a German spa town. 25 years old, university educated and employed as a tutor for Russian family, Alexei believes he's as good as any of the titled aristocracy and worthy of the love of Polina, the stepdaughter of the General. He's scornful of the bourgeois lifestyle, where they are always concerned about money and never happy. The General himself has debts to pay however, so Alexei knows that he needs to have money if he is to woo Polina away from a French Marquis who has given the family a loan.

Alexei's "Tatar nature" however has led him to see gambling as an alternative means of acquiring wealth and happiness and earn the respect of Polina. "Money is everything", he tells her, "You would see me differently. Not as a slave". But he has exhausted the savings of his salary and lost the huge sum of 6,000 guilders playing roulette at the casino. The General is worried at the instability and lack of rational behaviour that Alexei exhibits, and has to apologise on his behalf to try and prevent a duel with Baron Wurmerhelm when the tutor calculatedly goes out of his way to insult the Baroness.

The General however is soon rather more concerned about equally reckless behaviour that threatens to undermine his own financial prospects and his marriage to his fiancée Blanche. He has been depending on an inheritance from his grandmother, Babulenka, who he has told Blanche is at death's door, but the old lady has turned up in town and is gambling and losing every last crown of his future inheritance at the casino.

The Gambler, like Pushkin's Queen of Spades, like Tolstoy's Pierre in War and Peace (and Tolstoy's own early life of aristocratic dissolution and gambling debts) deals very much with that self-destructive tendency in the Russian nature to throw oneself at the hands of fate where the stakes are winning all or losing everything. There's no half-measures. There's a self-contradiction in the position of Alexei who has ambitions towards acceptance and respectability in this society and also in the General who values honour and reputation. It seems that there is also a certain amount of concern about keeping up such appearances and measuring up to their international neighbours, with Germans, French ad English all present in this setting.

Karoline Gruber's direction of the Vienna State Opera's new production of The Gambler attempts to bring together all the colour and contradiction of the positions expressed in the work, along with all the madness that ensues when alcohol is added to the mix. The set depicts the German town as a fairground ride, a merry-go-round on a Russian roulette wheel, which is lot of metaphors to mix that don't necessarily go together, but then neither does the Russian psyche depicted by Dostoevsky and Prokofiev, which is complex and contradictory at war and at play. The costumes are cartoonish and caricatural, with Baron and Baroness Wurnerhelm looking like something out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the gamblers in the casino and Alexei transforming into half-reptilian monsters.

It all looks terrific, with plenty of gold glitter thrown as well, creating a fantastical, non-naturalistic look that probes the deeper nature of the work. The larger-than-life character can also be applied to Prokofiev's score and Simone Young conducts to bring all that wild dynamic out of the orchestra performance. Rather than see it a collection of scenes, Young brings a greater sense of the work as a grand canvas that has coherence, is constantly building and upping the ante, marching towards an inevitably dramatic conclusion.

The greater coherence of the work is also brought out in the excellent singing performances. Alexei was one of the first roles I saw Misha Didyk singing (in the Barenboim/Tcherniakov 2008 Berlin Staatsoper production), and it's still one of his best roles. He can be a little strained elsewhere, but is generally more contained in the Russian repertoire and doesn't let Alexei slip overboard into wild madness - or at least not too early anyway. There's terrific singing also from Linda Watson, full of character, poise and recklessness as Babulenka; Elena Guseva is an impressive Polina, the role well sung and played with an appropriate sense of coolness gradually dissolving as Polina recognises that she has no control of her own fate. Dmitry Ulyanov plays the exasperated General well, but Elena Maximova's Blanche could do with a little more character and fieriness.

Links: Wiener StaatsoperWiener Staatsoper Live