Thursday Opera Matinee: Prokofiev's The Gambler
Verity Sharp presents Prokofiev's opera The Gambler in a recording from the Vienna State Opera. Prokofiev completed this exciting and energetic score in his late 20s.
In today's Opera Matinee, Verity Sharp presents Prokofiev's The Gambler in a recording from the Vienna State Opera as part of Radio 3's season Breaking Free: A Century of Russian Culture.
Prokofiev's 4-act opera is based on a novel by Dostoevsky, who understood the lure of the gaming tables only too well, being addicted to gambling himself. Set in Roulettenburg, a fictional German spa town, the opera deals with the ups and downs of winning and losing and obsessive greed. Prokofiev wrote his own libretto and completed the score in 1917, in his late 20s. It is written in his most exciting early style with high energy and motoric rhythms.
Prokofiev: The Gambler
The General ..... Dmitry Ulyanov (bass)
Pauline ..... Elena Guseva (soprano)
Alexei ..... Misha Didyk (tenor)
Babulenka ..... Linda Watson (mezzo-soprano)
The Marquis .....Thomas Ebenstein (tenor)
Blanche ..... Elena Maximova (mezzo-soprano)
Mr Astley ..... Morten Frank Larsen (baritone)
Vienna State Opera
Simone Young (conductor)
2pm Act 1
2.25pm Act 2
3pm Act 3
3.25pm Act 4
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor).
Image (C) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
In the Grand Hotel garden, Alexei, tutor to the General's family, meets Polina, the General's ward, who is in debt to the Marquis. Polina has pawned her jewellery in order to provide Alexei with gambling funds. Alexei is in love with Polina but has to inform her that he has lost all her money. The General, the much younger demimondaine Blanche, whom he loves, the Marquis and Mr Astley, an Englishman, all enter. When asked about his losses, Alexei says he lost his own savings. He is chided that someone of his modest income should not gamble but Alexei dismisses the idea of saving money with a caustic diatribe. Astley is impressed and invites Alexei to tea. The General then receives a telegram from "Babulenka" (literally a diminutive of 'grandmother'; she is, in fact, the General's aunt and Polina's grandmother) in Moscow. The General is hoping that Babulenka will die soon so that he can inherit her money and marry Blanche.
Polina is frustrated that she cannot repay her debts to the Marquis. While Alexei continues to protest that he loves her, she wonders if he has any other interest than greed. The General interrupts their conversation. Polina challenges Alexei to prove his love, and to see if he would truly do anything for her, by making a pass at a German Baroness sitting in the park. Alexei does this, to the anger of the Baron. In the ensuing fuss, the Baron and Baroness leave.
In the hotel lobby, the General reproaches Alexei for his actions. Alexei is unrepentant so the General dismisses him as his family tutor. The General asks the Marquis for help in preventing a scandal. Mr. Astley enters and explains to Alexei the General's concerns. Blanche had earlier asked the Baron for a loan, which upset the Baroness. Because of the high social status of the Baron and Baroness, the General is keen to avoid any sense of impropriety. Astley further explains that the General cannot propose to Blanche until he receives his share of the inheritance from Babulenka. Alexei considers that once Polina receives her share of the inheritance, the Marquis will attempt to win her over.
The Marquis appears on the General's behalf and tries to mollify Alexei's behaviour. Alexei responds with contempt until the Marquis produces a note from Polina, which calls on Alexei to stop behaving like a schoolboy. Alexei accuses him of making Polina write the letter and leaves in anger. The Marquis tells the General and Blanche that he was successful in subduing Alexei.
The General predicts Babulenka's death that same evening but, soon after, she arrives at the hotel in apparently good health. She greets Alexei and Polina with some affection but sees through the behaviour of the General and the others. She says that she has overcome her illness and plans to recuperate, and gamble, at the spa.
At the casino, Babulenka has been losing her money at the roulette tables and ignoring all pleas to stop. The General is despondent in seeing his chances with Blanche diminish. Upon being informed of just how much Babulenka has lost, the General suggests calling the police but The Marquis dissuades him. Alexei arrives and the General and the Marquis ask for his help in halting Babulenka's gambling losses. Prince Nilsky, another potential suitor to Blanche, arrives and further enumerates Babulenka's losses. The General collapses, distraught, and runs into the casino. Blanche departs with Nilsky. Alexei wonders of what will happen with Polina's family after Babulenka's financial losses. Babulenka, exhausted and depleted of funds, wants to go home to Moscow. Babulenka asks Polina to come with her, but she declines. The General bewails Babulenka's losses and his own loss of Blanche to Nilsky.
In his hotel room, Alexei finds Polina, who has a letter from the Marquis. The Marquis says he is selling the General's properties mortgaged to him but will forgive fifty thousand for Polina's sake and consider their relationship to be over. Polina feels the Marquis’s generosity as an insult and wishes she had fifty thousand to fling at his face. Alexei is deliriously pleased that Polina has turned to him for assistance.
Rushing to the casino, Alexei has a run of good luck, winning twenty times in a row and breaking the bank. After an entr'acte, the other patrons continue to talk about Alexei's run. Alexei returns to his room, the voices of the croupiers and other gamblers ringing in his ears. He finds Polina and offers her the funds to pay the Marquis back. She refuses and asks whether he really loves her. When Alexei gives her the money, she tosses it back in his face and runs out. The opera ends with Alexei alone in the room obsessively recalling his success at the tables.
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