09 Apr 2008
Prokofiev's The Gambler at the MET
That Fed Dostoevsky – sure plays a mean pinball!
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
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.