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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Gambler - an opera in four acts (1916-27)
General - Sergei Aleksashkin
Polina - Tatiana Pavlovskaya
Alexei - Vladimir Galuzin
Babulenka - Larisa Dyadkova
Marquis - Nikolai Gassiev
Mr Astley - Alexander Gergalov
Mlle Blance - Nadezhda Serdyuk
Prince Nilsky - Andrei Popov
Baron Wurmheimer - Oleg Sychev
Potapych - Andrei Spekhov
Temur Chkheidze (stage director)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. June 2010, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo;5.1 Dolby Surround; 5.1 DTS
MARIINSKY MAR0536 [126:00]

Prokofiev’s Gambler is, in many ways, a perfect opera for DVD. It’s light on singable tunes, but the orchestra does a great job of illustrating and enlightening Dostoevsky’s story of dangerous obsession and the objectification of human desires. It’s interesting that it has been performed more frequently recently: this Mariisnky production is roughly contemporaneous with the opera being produced in both Berlin and London. Maybe its themes of avarice and the dehumanising effects of money are even more pertinent to us today.
Musically, this performance is very strong. Gergiev is on his home territory here, and he has the orchestra and singers eating out of his hand. The orchestra, in particular, play brilliantly for him, illustrating every nuance of Prokofiev’s endlessly pictorial score with delicacy and virtuosity, and the conductor controls the opera’s unfolding structure with security and strength. The vocal cast, mostly Mariinsky regulars, are also very good. Vladimir Galuzin, whose dark voice sounds less like a tenor every day, has the right tone and colour to illustrate Alexei’s gathering obsession, and in the final act he manages to seem positively deranged both at the gambling tables and in his scene with Polina. As Polina, Tatiana Pavlovskaya is something of an Ice Queen, and that’s not an inappropriate approach to the role, but I would have liked to have seen more than one facial expression from her in the opera’s two-hour duration. Still, she sings with forceful clarity and makes her mark effectively. The finest vocal actor in the cast is the General of Sergei Aleksashkin who carefully treads the line between the buffoon and the victim. His whiskers help to point up the absurdity of his character and he is very funny when he realises that his grandmother, who he had hoped was at death’s door, shows up safe and well, scuppering his hopes of an inheritance. He is just as good when, humbled, he has to stoop to asking Alexei to restrain the old woman’s habits. As Granny, the show is all but stolen by Larisa Dyadkova who shows up spitting comic malevolence at her avaricious relative and his hangers-on. However, she too is then humbled by losses at the gaming table and Dyadkova manages to seem touchingly pathetic as she forlornly (and unsuccessfully) asks Polina to live with her to relieve her loneliness. The minor roles are all taken successfully too, with a particularly unctuous account of the Marquis from Nikolai Gassiev, and Nadezhda Serdyuk is a skittishly self-serving Blanche.
However, like all opera DVDs, the gain over audio only comes if you have something good to look at as well as to listen to, and I found Temur Chkheidze’s production excruciatingly dull. He sets the whole thing on a mostly bare, abstract stage with a few chairs and a bed in the corner to represent Alexei’s room. There is the occasional suggestion of a location, but otherwise the bareness of the sets does little to captivate the viewer’s eye. He has the luxury of a rotating stage with which he does barely anything; surely any director worth his salt would jump on the opportunity to illustrate the obsession of the roulette wheel? The period costumes set the opera in its 19th century era but otherwise, beyond the final tableau of Alexei showering himself with his own winnings, there is little of this staging that I will remember.
This means that, in spite of the quality of what you hear, there is little to make this set any more valuable than Gergiev’s earlier Philips recording of the opera on CD, now available as part of their bumper bargain box-set of Prokofiev’s operas. If you really want a DVD then you’d be well advised to seek out Barenboim’s Berlin performance, now available on Unitel. It’s a shame, also, that there are no extras, but the sound and picture quality are both very good.
Simon Thompson