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The Gambler

Vienna State Opera

In Review Vienna The Gamble hdl 118
The Gambler in Vienna, with Misha Didyk and Elena Guseva
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH/Michael Pöhn

MORE THAN HALF a century after his death, Sergei Prokofiev entered the Wiener Staatsoper’s repertoire in October with Karoline Gruber’s grippingly theatrical production of The Gambler, the composer’s first completed opera(seen Oct. 20). That claim needs to be qualified, since the company frequently presented The Love of Three Oranges at the Volksoper in the 1950s prior to the Staatsoper’s postwar rededication. In the two decades that followed, The Gambler and War and Peace were seen at the reopened house on the Ring, albeit in guest productions from Belgrade and Moscow. Nevertheless, a fresh Gambler for this illustrious house, which has focused increasingly on Russian repertoire over the past decade, felt like an event.

Much of the credit went to Gruber for her surreal and often savage production, set amid a derelict carousel. The Austrian director, last seen here more than a decade ago with the Puccini rarity Le Villi,will direct Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando,a Staatsoper world premiere planned for the end of 2019. In addition to the carousel horses—some operational, others broken down—the main elements of Roy Spahn’s set were an enormous shattered mirror and a series of variously-sized locked doors—images that brought René Magritte to mind. But this was hardly a suffocating production, enlivened as it was with balloons, gold confetti and Ulrich Schneider’s big-top lighting. Like the Dostoevsky novella on which it is based, Prokofiev’s opera is a psychologically merciless study of addiction that unfurls at a feverish pace. Gruber spent little time trying to clarify the backstory or to establish the relationships between characters. Instead, we were plunged directly into the obsessive and disoriented mind of Alexey, the dissolute (and penniless) young tutor who is the gambler of the opera’s title.  

From the start, Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk was a splendidly agitated Alexey. He tore through this punishing role with bravura, sustaining an exciting sense of momentum, even as his lyric instrument grew strained by the roulette-scene denouement. “You don’t look human anymore,” cries Polina, Alexey’s love interest; in this production he literally did not, having sprouted a pair of werewolf hands at the roulette table. The weathered quality of Didyk’s voice by evening’s end complemented his character’s mental and physical disfiguration. Elena Guseva sounded plush and full as Polina, her searing voice cutting the air like a knife during her more brazen pronouncements. The libretto ends with Polina leaving Alexey after he breaks the bank. Gruber had him kill her instead, which is, from a symbolic point of view, equivalent. 

Among the massive cast (there are thirty-plus roles, many fleeting), the other main standout was the supremely elegant American soprano Linda Watson, one of the few non-Russians in the principal cast, as Babulen’ka, the dying matriarch who shows up in Act II to gamble away her entire fortune in a single evening. As her gold-digging nephew, the General, Dmitry Ulyanov channeled his puffed-up character’s arrogance and subsequent helplessness. Meanwhile, the house’s wonderful character tenor Thomas Ebenstein brought a not-altogether-despicable degree of smarminess to the spineless Marquis. 

Conductor Simone Young held tight to the reigns of the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper. It was a highly studied performance of this relentlessly churning score. For all its power, it could have benefited from a little more flexibility to match Prokofiev’s coloristically vivid and varied style. The Viennese musicians performed with grandeur and sensitivity, but I often missed the white-hot energy that came across in Didyk and Guseva’s performances. It would be great to get to hear the Staatsoper perform The Fiery Angel,Prokofiev’s searing dissection of female obsession/possession, in the not-too-distant future. Vienna is ready.  —A. J. Goldmann 

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