That Fed Dostoevsky – sure plays a mean pinball!
That version of a line from another opera I once saw at the Met encapsulates my response to the return of the elegant Temur Chkhedze production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, based on Dostoevsky's 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, bursting 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 a trenchcoat (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 me off my 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 focused on the personal: on selfish individuals with no interest but their own financial welfare. The opera 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.
Prokofiev wisely simplified Dostoevsky’s ugly story. In the short novel, Blanche carries Alexei off to Paris to teach him how to spend (her own 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).
An evening of theater at the Met to wake you up.
An important point none of the commentators at the Met have discussed: it was illegal for women to play the wheel at places like Roulettenberg. (I'm not sure how long this remained in force. Until World War I?) This is the reason Polina must use Alexei to play her money for her - she isn't interested in him in the least. Also, it is Blanche's modus operandi - she goes to the casino, spots unattached and rich-looking men, and asks them to place a bet for her. But she asked Baron Wurmser, and he was not unattached - and the Baroness had the morals police throw Blanche out. She cannot go back to the casino to find another mark until she is respectably married, which accounts for her (slight) interest in the General - but even him she won't marry unless he's rich. And when Granny arrives, she has to have a male escort to bet her money for her. No one at the Met seems to have noticed any of this, but it is quite important to the structure of the story - if only because otherwise we might think Polina is attracted to Alexei.