PROKOFIEV The Gambler
Daniel Barenboim and Sergey Prokofiev might seem like an odd couple but then The Gambler, composed during the First World War and revamped during the ’20s, is not what we expect from Prokofiev. There is more lyrical invention in the opera than its reputation allows – still, it comes rather late in the day and is mainly associated with the elderly Babulenka’s return to Mother Russia rather than the central love interest. More problematic to Prokofiev’s admirers, given the cinematic specificity of his later work, is the frequent disconnect between the scherzo-ish furore in the orchestra and the detailed developments on stage.
In a recent Covent Garden production conducted by Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones set the opera at around the time of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, playing up its Dadaist zest, injecting humour. A polyglot cast sang in English. Dmitri Tcherniakov in Berlin has chosen to mirror the capitalist excesses of our own day and does so with tireless attention to detail, playing everything in the naturalistic style of a TV movie located in hotel lobbies and gaming rooms. This suits the conversational and/or declamatory vocal writing given here in the original Russian. One is reminded of Janá∂ek and not just in the avoidance of set-piece arias. The designs, also credited to Tcherniakov, are unfussy, with modular stage spaces neatly dovetailed to echo the mutual dependencies of the cast and colour-coordinated in cobalt blue. The filming itself rather neatly anticipates this geometric theme as the audience settles down for the show. The milling crowds of extras in baseball caps, designer gear and/or mafia specs won’t please everyone but the approach makes more sense of the hyperactive plot and the interaction of the protagonists than any production I have seen. Kristine Opolais as Polina and especially Misha Didyk as Alexei both look and sound well: their closing scene is superbly directed and brought off with an emotional intelligence not necessarily apparent in the score.
Perhaps the biggest surprise comes in the pit. Barenboim, whose tendency to busk performances of familiar repertoire can embarrass discerning audiences, is here at his most obviously committed. He has found in the piece a depth and expressionist power that brings us close to the world of Wozzeck. A certain brittle capriciousness is sacrificed but the pertinence of Prokofiev’s brutal take on Dostoyevsky emerges more strongly than ever. All the subsidiary roles are well served and the sound is good, too. Strongly recommended.