Sunday 23 March 2008

The Gambler, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 23 March 2008

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

General – Vladimir Ognovenko
Polina – Kristine Opolais
Alexei – Misha Didyk
Baulen’ka – Stefania Toczyska
Marquis – Stephan Rügamer
Blanche – Sylvia de la Muela
Mr Astley –Viktor Rud
Prince Nilski – Gian-Luca Pasolini
Baron Wurmerhelm – Alessandro Paliaga
Potapytsch – Plamen Kumpikov
Casino Director – Gleb Nikolsky
First Croupier – Gregory Bonfatti
Second Croupier – Robert Hebenstrett
(plus other gamblers, etc.)

Dmitri Tcherniakov (producer, designs, costumes)
Elena Zaitseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

This was not quite the Berlin première of Prokofiev’s first completed opera, which had taken place a few days previously, but the second performance came close enough. It does Daniel Barenboim and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden great credit that, not only should they have undertaken such an important task, but that it should have formed the centrepiece of the company’s 2008 Festtage. Barenboim clearly believes in the work, for it receives a co-production with La Scala, again under his baton. Such commitment was triumphantly vindicated by a fine performance and production. During the first act, there were occasions when I wondered whether this might be a work more compelling musically than dramatically, but my doubts soon disappeared. The Gambler might not be quite so consistently gripping as The Fiery Angel, but it is a fine work, which deserves far greater exposure. It was given here, as has almost always been the case, from the first performance onwards, in its second, revised version, completed in 1928.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin were on top form throughout, banishing memories of their somewhat disappointing Meistersinger. The orchestra proved fully equal to Prokofiev’s sometimes strenuous demands, unleashing a kaleidoscopic riot of colours. Rhythmic precision was impeccable, as was the inexorable forward narrative drive of the score. Where a few days before, the orchestra had sometimes sounded carelessly loud, little concerned with the events on stage, here orchestra, conductor, and soloists proved that good singers are perfectly capable of making themselves heard over considerable volume from the pit, so long as musical understanding is present and apparent. There was never any doubt that Barenboim was a sure guide, both to details and to the greater structure. We should hear more of him in Russian repertoire: a Tchaikovsky Sixth last summer was nothing short of magnificent.

The huge cast was very strong; I could not name a single weak link. Everyone seemed to appreciate the particular demands of Prokofiev’s declamatory style, which once may have seemed ‘anti-operatic,’ but like that of Mussorgsky or Janáček, with whom Prokofiev has much in common, now sounds unforcedly naturalistic. Misha Didyk displayed not only great stamina in the title role, but an exemplary command of musical line and subtlety in deployment of his considerable vocal resources. Likewise Kristine Opolais as his beloved Polina. Both could act too. Sylvia de la Muela put in a splendid turn, as much acted as sung, as the demi-mondaine Blanche, callously and casually deserting Vladimir Ognovenko’s carefully-observed General when the money ran out. Stephan Rügamer also judged to a tee his fair-weather friend act as the Marquis. A truly stage-stopping moment came with the arrival of Stefania Toczyska in the guise of Baulen’ka, come to disabuse the General of the imminence – or indeed possibility – of his inheritance. Here one felt one was truly in the presence of a star, albeit a star playing a role rather than presenting herself, as too often can be the case in the operatic world. Toczyska exhibited great vocal power, often commendably held in reserve, but also considerable thoughtfulness in her projection and modulation; her exchanges with Polina were genuinely heartfelt. Baulen’ka’s retinue of servants was powerfully directed to enhance her imperious majesty.

Here, as in much else, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production was of great assistance, working closely with the musical performance. For instance, the climactic gambling scene in the fourth act was simply stunning in terms of its integration of a myriad of solo voices into a quasi-choral whole, without ever sacrificing the sense of this being a multiplicity of individuals. But equally powerful – and impossible to dissociate from the musical direction – was Tcherniakov’s careful direction of each of these individuals, once again in some sense part of an emerging mass, but never just that. The various non-singing actors throughout added a sense of place and ongoing activity, without seeming gratuitous, as can so often be the case in such situations. Tcherniakov’s designs were equally impressive. Most of the action took place in what I suspect would modishly be termed a ‘design hotel’, its modern, stylish business setting the perfect foil for the financial dealings taking place. The casino itself in the fourth act imparted a due sense of extravagance, but at the service of the drama rather than for its own sake. One could well understand, after the madness of this scene, why Polina would ultimately reject Alexei’s winnings, and thus why the opera takes the course it does. This, then, was a powerfully conceived performance at every level; it served Prokofiev’s drama very well indeed.