The Gambler


Prokofiev The Gambler opera to libretto by the composer (completed 1928) based on the novella The Gambler by Dostoevsky (written 1866). Directed 2008 by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Berlin Staatsoper unter den Linden. Stars Vladimir Ognovenko (General), Kristine Opolais (Polina, the General's step-daughter and ward), Misha Didyk (Aleksey, tutor of the General's children), Stefania Toczyska (Babulenka, the General's rich old aunt), Stephan Rügamer (Marquis), Viktor Rud (Mr. Astley, a rich Englishman), Silvia De La Muela (Blanche, demi-mondaine), Gian-Luca Pasolini (Prince Nilsky/Hunchbacked Player), Alessandro Paliaga (Baron Wurmerhelm/Old Player), Plamen Kumpikov (Potapych, Babulenka's butler) Gleb Nikolsky (Casino Director), Gregory Bonfatti (1st Coupier), Robert Hebenstreit (2nd Coupier), Alexander Teliga (1st Englishman), Gianfranco Montresor (2nd Englishman), Enas Massalha (Tarted-up Lady), Alisa Zinovjeva (Pale Lady), Elizabeth Laurence (So-so Lady), Constance Heller (Distinguished Lady), Borjana Mateewa (Dubious Lady), Ki Hyun Kim (Hot-tempered Player), Otakar Klein (Nervous Player), and Ilya Kuzmin (Embittered Player) as well as Juri Bogdanov, Dmitri Plotnikov, Jens-Eric Schulze, Andreas Neher, Bernd Grabowski, and Peter Krumow (other Players). Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Staatsopernchor (Chorus Master Eberhard Friedrich). Sets by Dmitri Tcherniakov; costumes by Dmitri Tcherniakov and Elena Zaitseva; lighting by Gleb Filshtinksy; video direction by Karina Fibich. Released 2010, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and the disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio  sound output. Grade: A

One might think that Dostoevsky, the great writer, thinker, and Christian conservative, went through life with a halo hovering about. But in fact, much of his life he was confounded by painful personal problems, especially with women, poor business management, and for about a decade, compulsive gambling. These troubles all show up in The Gambler, which is perhaps the most important literary treatment of the vice of gaming. Under draconian deadline pressure, Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in one month with the help of a schoolgirl who was a champion at shorthand. He then married her.

Prokofiev wrote his opera in 5 and 1/2 months in 1916. The music is not considered to be particularly great. But it's more than adequate to support the drama presented on the stage. As with any adaptation from book to stage, much gets left out (yes, I've read the book). But I think Prokofiev did a good job of translating the key elements of the written plot into his opera. Even after simplification, there are 31 credited singing roles plus other non-credited actors who appear. The show is more lively than my screenshots below suggest.

Below meet a retired General (Vladimir Ognovenko) a widower with children in school who also serves as guardian for the property of an older stepdaughter, Polina. The General is hopelessly in love with Blanche (Silvia De La Muela), a young woman who has demonstrated in her career a tremendous talent for running through the fortunes of older men:

The General enjoys the life at gambling resorts, and Polina (Kristine Opolais) used to enjoy it also. But after the General ran through all his money, he also spent the money he held in trust for Polina. Below we see Polina with Aleksey (Misha Didyk ), a young man with a good education but no means. Aleksey works for the General as tutor for the General's younger children. He's also handy to have about because he's a budding expert at gaming; Aleksey is the gambler for whom the opera is named. He is hopelessly in love with Polina:

Polina has mostly ignored Aleksey because she was hopelessly in love with a certain Marquis shown below (Stephan Rügamer). As Blanche drained the General's resources, he borrowed money from the Marquis; eventually, the General pledged all his and Polina's properties to him.  The Marquis is not exactly in love with Polina; but as long as Polina offers herself, the Marquis can't think of any better place to be:

Polina, betrayed and helpless, takes out her spleen on Aleksey. When Baron Wurmerhelm (Alessandro Paliaga) and his wife (non-credited mute role) enter the room, Polina orders Aleksey to prove his love for her by creating a disgraceful scene with the Baroness:

This Aleksey immediately does:

The General is furious at Aleksey for creating a scandal. But being out of money, the General does nothing and hopes the matter will blow over. Here we see a mysterious businessman, Mr. Astley, trying to comfort Aleksey. Astley has been living in the hotel for some time and has observed the drama surrounding the General and his beautiful women.  Astley explains that all involved believe that a rich, old aunt of the General, the Babulenka, is expected to die soon. Then:

As we noted before, the Marquis has security for his loan. But he's also due interest for the time-value of the money. Since the General is broke, it falls on Polina to make payments of interest whenever the Marquis is interested in receiving one. Polina has now fallen out of love with the Marquis:

The General convinces himself that Babulenka is in her death agony. Any hour now:

But suddenly Babulenka arrives at the hotel the quite alive!

Babulenka pours out scorn for the General and his friends. The only person she likes is the lowly tutor Aleksey. And even though Polina isn't related to her by blood, Babulenka shows compassion for her, but not without some constructive criticism:

Babulenka has been hearing a lot about the casinos in Europe.  She wants to see for herself how to gamble. The General is in shock. What can he do to stop Babulenka from risking money? Since Babulenka will only listen to Aleksey, the General must now beg his tutor for help!

But nothing works. Bubulenka gets swept up with the thrill of gaming until she has lost all the assets she brought with her from Russia!

Polina now wants to repay the Marquis enough to get back her property from him. Aleksey the gambler is the only person who might to raise the money to do this:

Polina breaks down and asks for help from the gambler. But where to get enough money to place the first bet? The gambler comes up with a solution, but I'll not spoil it:


Aleksey starts betting and has a run of good luck. Soon he has enough money to pay the Marquis and save Polina. Does he then stop? Or course not, this man's a gambler!!

On and on he continues to win and keeps refusing to stop! All the players in the casino crowd around Alexsey. They (correctly) predict he is doomed because of his inability to stop when the run of luck is going his way. But through a twist of fate, Aleksey doesn't meet his doom (at least not now). Aleksey breaks the bank and the casino must close until it can refinance the next day! So Aleksey is forced to leave the casino---with enough winnings to pay back the Marquis, restore to Babulinka her losses, and have a fortune left over:

Polina asked for help and now Aleksey has the money she needs. What will Polina do now? First she makes mad love with Aleksey for a couple of hours. But at this point, I'll let you figure out how the opera should end and why. Then compare your solution to the last scenes of the show. How did you do? After that, read the final Chapters XV through XVII of the novel (about 30 pages) to see how much more complicated the novel is than the opera.

I first reviewed this title in 2011 shortly after it came out and gave it a "B+" grade. Mark Berry had seen this live when it was filmed by Karina Fibich, and Berry had written in the highly-respected Seen and Heard International a glowing review of the orchestra, the singers, and Tcherniakov's production and personal directing. Gramophone magazine rated this The Gambler as first runner-up for the best DVD/HDVD released in 2010. After I recently reviewed  Tcherniakov's The Tsar's Bride and gave it an "A+", I realized that it was time to re-visit The Gambler, make screenshots, and reconsider my B+ grade. 

Since 2011, Tcherniakov has had 5 other opera productions published in HDVD. All of them involve radical and controversial modifications of librettos.  But there's no updating in The Gambler other than pushing the era of the show forward a few decades.  All of Tcherniakov's talent for personal directing is on full display and his singers all can act as well as sign. The SQ is good with state-of-the-art recording specs for 2008. Tcherniakov worked closely with videographer Karina Fibich, who got plenty of light to shoot by. She also got opportunity to do brilliant close ups and even make interesting  shots of the action from a side wing of the stage, a neat trick that I don't remember having seen in other opera HDVDs. On reconsideration, I'm moving the grade up to an "A."

Here are two Gambler clips for you to consider: