Pavlovskaya, Serdyuk, Diadkova; Galouzine, Gassiev, Gergalov, Aleksashkin; Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, Gergiev. Production: Chkheidze. Mariinsky 0536, 126 mins., subtitled
One of the signal achievements of Valery Gergiev in bringing the Mariinsky Theatre into the forefront of post-Soviet Russian cultural life (and international operatic life) was the company's exploration and presentation of Sergei Prokofiev's works. Only some of the latter's operas had fully cleared Soviet censors; the Mariinsky brought them all back for consideration. Among the strongest works was one of the spikiest — The Gambler (Igrok), readied for performance in 1917 but scuppered by the October Revolution, Prokofiev's departure for the West and shifting post-Word War I tastes. Finally, Brussels's Monnaie gave the premiere of the opera in 1929 — in French translation. It appeared briefly at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater in the mid-1970s, without becoming a repertory fixture.
The opera derives from Dostoyevsky's 1867 potboiler novella, written under severe economic stress at a crisis point in the author's life, partially induced by an addiction to roulette. Set in Germany, the work — like some of Turgenev's more elegant creations — showcases Russian aristocrats misbehaving against a background of contrasting international types. The titular gambler, Alexei, initially an impoverished tutor to the General's family and a tormented, tormenting suitor to his niece Polina, is a Romantic antihero in the line of Pushkin's Gherman in Queen of Spades. Prokofiev supplied the kind of driving, tricky-rhythmed score that brings out something like the best in Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces.
Gergiev brought The Gambler to the Met in 2001, with three of the Mariinsky principals featured in this new DVD release, from a performance filmed live at St. Petersburg's historic theater in 2010 — tenors Vladimir Galouzine (Alexei, the titular gambler who, in winning a fortune, loses Polina) and Nikolai Gassiev (the shifty Marquis) and bass Sergei Aleksashkin (the General). These three singers, in fresher estate, also took part in Gergiev's 1996 Philips CD recording of the piece. Though helmed in St. Petersburg by Temur Chkheidze, the same director as at the Met, the simplified production here does not, alas, feature George Tsypin's spectacular gaming-table-based set from the New York production. Having Alexei constantly peruse a volume (the novella?) seems tiresomely cliché, but generally the piece works. As he did with Gherman, the howitzer-voiced, darkly dashing Galouzine set the world standard in this role for years. This filming captures his portrayal late — the callow Alexei looks too middle-aged, and his clarion voice occasionally judders on high — but it's still an impressive achievement. The Mariinsky public reveres Aleksashkin, a highly competent singer with fine comic interpretive skills. Gassiev — not a sterling vocalist even three decades ago — now sounds patchy, but he still reliably channels characterful decadence.
Tatiana Pavlovskaya — singing solidly, if without the radiance Ljuba Kazarnovskaya offered on the 1996 recording — makes Polina's weariness comprehensible. Star mezzo Larissa Diadkova, if not so free on top as of yore, has a field day in a gift of a part — the semi-demented Granny (Babulenka), whose tremendous losses doom the general's schemes to wed his opportunistic mistress. The orchestral contribution is excellent. Among the large ensemble are angular-voiced Nadezhda Serdyuk, having fun as the general's mistress, Mlle. Blanche, and such key Mariinsky players as Andrei Popov (Prince Nilsky), Sergei Semishkur (First Croupier) and Alexander Gergalov (Mr. Astley).
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