Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Gambler - Opera in 4 acts and 6 scenes
Sergei Aleksashkin - The General; Tatiana Pavlovskaya, Pauline: Vladimir Galuzin - Alexei; Larissa Dyadkova - Babulenka; Nikolai Gassiev, Marquis: Alexander Gergalov - Mr Astley; Nadezhda Serdyuk - Mlle Blanche; Andrei Popov, Prince Nilsky; Oleg Sychev - Baron Wurmerhelm; Andrei Spekhov - Potapych
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia, 27, 29 December 2010
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround; Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i; Region: Worldwide: Subtitles: in English, German, French, and Japanese
Reviewed in surround.
When Prokofiev wrote The Gambler, his sixth opera, in 1916 he knew he had to create a sensation befitting his reputation as an enfant terrible. He adapted Dostoyesky's story himself and produced an opera in conversational style. He abandoned operatic orthodoxy, writing a work largely without arias and choruses because they simply held up the action. The music upset even his own mother, who complained about his 'pounding' on the piano. This is the tougher Prokofiev of The Fiery Angel, the Third Symphony and the Scythian Suite, not the tuneful and balletic composer of Romeo and Juliet or The Love of Three Oranges. Rehearsals at the Mariinsky under the English conductor Albert Coates in 1917 were stopped because the singers and orchestra refused to perform a work they thoroughly disliked and the Revolution put a stop to any further chance of performance. Prokofiev revised the piece at the end of the 1920s making it a little less acidic. He notes that he regarded some passages as 'mere padding disguised with monstrous chords'. Lots of monstrous chords remain even so. It had to wait until 1963 to get even a broadcast performance in the Soviet Union, and it was a further eleven years before it entered the repertoire of the Bolshoi. All this is perhaps unsurprising. The opera is set in a hotel in the imaginary spa town of Roulettenburg, a thinly disguised Wiesbaden, where a bunch of people with more money than morals have gathered to gamble. There are no really sympathetic characters and the entire piece displays a surprisingly 21st century cynicism. The pace never slackens as it builds to a frantic and very black dénouement. The Gambler is a story of compulsive greed and almost every character displays it in varying degrees. There is no more appropriate opera to reflect our post-2008 world and the Mariinsky production on this disc keeps the action suitably relentless. Few recordings exist so the market is open for a modern recording by the very company that rejected the work nearly one hundred years ago. Fortunately attitudes have clearly changed because everyone is utterly on top of their roles and the orchestra play with power and finesse under their remarkable Musical Director Valery Gergiev. The staging is quite bare-bones but always appears consequent. Nothing happens on stage that is irrelevant to the plot and the decision to keep many characters in the background, lurking as it were, makes for many sinister moments as they prepare to pounce on any opportunity to gain wealth without effort. The four acts are performed with just one proper interval, appropriately for a work lasting only just over two hours.
The Russian production team have given us a splendid Blu-Ray production. It defaults to 5.1 Surround with English subtitles, has a clean and logical menu system and thank goodness it has no music over the menus. The picture is clear and well focused as we have come to expect these days. The sound is very good with a particularly felicitous balance between stage and pit that gives a spaciousness to the voices as well as the orchestra. The orchestral playing is spectacular and the singing is as good as Prokofiev's tough score allows. Vladimir Galuzin excels as Alexei and Larissa Dyadkova makes for a suitably self-centred and aristocratic Babulenka, one of the few roles with almost an aria. Tatiana Pavlovskaya is a beautiful but ice-cold Pauline. The notes, in really microscopic print, consist entirely of a much needed plot summary in several languages so purchasers will have to look elsewhere for background. The box carries the usual cast and technical data in slightly less microscopic print but in white and pink on a black background. I wonder who decided that was legible?
Dave Billinge  

See also review of DVD release (MAR0536) by Simon Thompson

A very impressive issue that should be on the shelf of every aficionado of 20th century opera. 

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