09 Apr 2008
Prokofiev's The Gambler at the MET
That Fed Dostoevsky – sure plays a mean pinball!
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
That Fed Dostoevsky – sure plays a mean pinball!
That version of a line from another opera I once saw at the Met expresses my initial reaction to the return of the elegant Temur Chkhedze production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, based on the novella of addiction and social dysfunction set in a fictitious German casino spa much like the ones where Dostoevsky frittered himself into bankruptcy. In the Met production, Roulettenberg is not so much a green baize casino as a four-story-high pinball game, with great glass-and-metal towers to knock the balls back in, flashing and spinning, lights, exploding horses and fireworks, a twirling park for the characters to circle each other when not “in play,” and a crannied attic – which expands to the width of the stage as needed – for our eponymous gambler to spend his time driving himself nuts with unrequited passion, for both the lovely Polina and the equally whimsical game of roulette. It’s not money he’s after, really, this Alexei slouching aggressively around town (in Vladimir Galouzine’s mesmerizing, physical, merciless star performance), or even Polina, really – it’s the thrill – of beating the odds – every sort of odds – life’s odds – the class system’s odds – the odds of Fate. Since that particular house cannot be beaten, the story cannot end well. We hardly laugh when a bankrupt, lovelorn General fires a pistol into his own head – the gun isn’t loaded and he’s already dead.
Prokofiev’s opera is not melodious, even by the standards of his War and Peace, which swept us off our feet when the Met revived it in December. The Gambler has no big picture, no nations running riot on the stage, and no glorious off-kilter waltzes to set the sensual scene. It is a lithe, onomatopoeic score, a vehicle for a few great singing actors, and the story is tightly wound. Alexei, a typical poor Russian intellectual, works as a tutor in the family of a General, who has come to Roulettenberg, supposedly to take the waters but actually to barter his lovely stepdaughter, Polina, to a rich marquis in order to borrow enough money to win the hand of the lovely courtesan, Madame Blanche, meanwhile hoping his rich mother-in-law in Moscow will finally die and leave him her fortune. Tragically, the old lady is in fine health, comes to town herself, and loses sixty thousand at the wheel. Polina begs Alexei to acquire the money to save her from selling herself on the marriage market, and in the spectacular set piece of Act IV, he goes to the tables, breaks the bank and cleans out the town! Triumphant, he gives the money to his adored Polina – and she hurls it back in his face. Curtain.
A scene from Prokofiev's "The Gambler" with Vladimir Galouzine as Alexei (center).
Prokofiev wisely simplified Dostoevsky’s ugly story. In the short novel, Blanche carries Alexei off to Paris to teach him how to spend (her great talent); but he enjoys nothing now except a gambler’s high, and returns to the casino a hopeless addict.
The shadiness of these figures is the point – notice that none of them are blood relations. In the 1870s, censors (and readers) would not have been able to endure a story in which people sell their children or parents for money, but stepchildren, adoptive parents and in-laws were fair game. Even forty years after the novel appeared, when Strauss, in Elektra, showed a family of blood relations hating each other, there was a scandal. Then Freud let the cat out of the bag about families.
The Met’s brilliantly staged, magnificently played, sparsely attended revival is the swan song of Valery Gergiev’s immensely distinguished far too brief career as the Met’s co-music director, a period that has introduced us to many wonderful, too-little-known Russian works with the cream of Russian singers and a mixed bag of Russian directors to put them over. It will immensely impoverish the Metropolitan, and the New York opera scene (thickly inhabited with Russians these days, by the way) if these works, and others we have not yet heard, vanish from the repertory and we resume mediocre revivals of the thrice-familiar.
Promenading about George Tsypin’s glamorous set these days (thrillingly lit by James F. Ingalls), besides the extraordinary Mr. Galouzine, who plays a crazed Russian as if he were, well, a crazed Russian (he’ll do it again in Pikovaya Dama next year, and you know? in Pagliacci, he was the scariest Canio I’ve ever seen); Olga Guryakova’s plum-shaped, sensuous tones as Polina; Larissa Diadkova as a far livelier (and audibly far easier to take) Grandma than Elena Obrastzova was; and a great horde of Kirov and Met regulars in smaller roles doing small but exciting things. This is one of those operas where one is very thankful for the Met titles, as we would otherwise miss a lot even if we were fluent in Russian (and I’m not).
A scene from Prokofiev's "The Gambler" with Vladimir Galouzine as Alexei.
An evening of theater at the Met that will wake you up.