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Russian Gambling on DVD & CD

Tchaikovsky Pique Dame
/ Gegam Grigorian, Maria Gulegina, Olga Borodina, Ludmila Filatova, Sergei Leiferkus.
Kirov Orchestra and Opera Chorus / Valery Gergiev
Philips: DVD 070 434-9 (1992) [16:9 179 mins]

Prokofiev The Gambler
Sergei Alexashkin, Ljuba Kazarnovskaya, Vladimir Galusin, Elena Obraztsova, Nikolai Gassiev, Valery Lebed, Marianna Tarassova, Victor Vikhrov, Andrei Khramtsov, Yuri Laptev, Grigory Karassev, Vladimir Zhivopistsev, Victor Vikhrov, Gennadi Bezzubenkov

Kirov Opera Chorus / Kirov Opera Orchestra / Valery Gergiev
Philips: CD 4545592 (1999) [115 mins]

Two Gambling Operas

Since Pushkin's 1833 story The Queen of Spades gambling has been for Russian writers a potent symbol of misdirected passion and fatal dependency on chance.

Tchaikovsky's opera treats the theme powerfully and this DVD presents the drama of Hermann's breakdown and his doomed relationship with Liza graphically, in a traditional St Petersburg staging. Gegam Grigorian inhabits the mind of the obsessed and finally crazed Hermann convincingly and Maria Gulegina partners him strongly. Minor characters are taken by great Russian singers Sergei Leiferkus and Olga Borodina. The Countess, who is frightened to death by Hermann, is well portrayed by Ludmila Filatova in this fairly straightforward and naturalistic production. Valery Gergiev is attentive to every detail in Tchaikovsky's score and achieves great tension with the Kirov Opera Chorus & Orchestra. Musically, you won't better this account. The picture, although not as sharply focussed as on some DVDs, is adequate. Philips DVDs have the convenience of subtitles with choice of language, & the booklet for Pique Dame is more informative than many, with detailed synopsis and (different) essays in several languages (not translated, however).

But Pique Dame is an opera which lends itself more readily than many to radical interpretations, e.g. a notably successful touring one by Welsh National Opera (with the skeleton of the Countess sharing a bed with Hermann!) and, most memorably for me, a great production at Stuttgart (see our fully illustrated reviews of these productions seen at Oxford and Stuttgart).

Regrettably the Stuttgart Pique Dame to my best knowledge was not filmed, nor is there yet a DVD of Prokofiev's demanding action-packed gambling opera. I remember being dazzled by the music and drama on the only occasion I had heard it before, chancing upon The Gambler long ago in Amsterdam, with only the briefest synopsis to help (Dutch being as incomprehensible to an Englishman as Russian).

Prokofiev's The Gambler (1915/28) was based on Dostoyevsky's black novella, with the central relationship, Alexey and Paulina, equally sure to fail as that of Hermann and Liza. But here money rules everyone, and the opera ends not with deaths of the protagonists, but instead with Paulina throwing Alexey's vast winnings in his face. "The Gambler holds up a mirror to a society corrupted by the pursuit of easy money and racing toward oblivion" (David Gutman).

Prokofiev admitted to having chosen the most radical musical language possible and he later tempered it in his 1928 revision, having decided that "a great deal of modernistic padding - - only complicated the vocal line". A press report preceding the premiere of The Gambler, which was in the event cancelled, had opined that the "cacophony of sounds, with its incredible intervals and discordant notes, may be very interesting to those who love powerful musical sensations, but it is completely uninteresting to the singers, who in the course of a whole season have barely managed to learn their parts".

Prokofiev's method was so original that one writer dubbed it as devoid of melody. His conversational style, which has similarities with Janacek's, does not hold up the swift action with arias. Prokofiev builds to a stunning last act in which his anti-hero gambles and breaks the bank. Instead of using an opera chorus, as does Tchaikovsky in his gaming scene, Prokofiev has in the casino a huge cast of individuals, each interjecting phrases with their own separate lines.

These Kirov/Gergiev CDs of The Gambler complement Pique Dame ideally. They arrived for review auspiciously at the beginning of 2003, the 50th anniversary year of the composer's death, and one which promises exposure to wall-to-wall Prokofiev (see www.boosey.com/prok2003)!

With Gergiev in charge of the same Kirov forces as for Pique Dame on DVD, this is one of the most worth-while of Universal's limited period reduced price 'outstanding opera recordings'. His distinguished cast of Russian singers have mastered the daunting difficulties of Prokofiev's frenetic vocal lines with apparent ease, so that The Gambler makes now a strong case as one of the composer's most original and exhilarating works.

The Universal Classics CD libretti provide full texts and translations; for The Gambler the original is only in Cyrillic Russian - surprising how quickly one gets used to following it - but it is impossible to keep one's place whilst turning the casino scene's sixty-five pages! The Gambler deserves revival in the opera house and a DVD would be desirable.

1. The musical language of Prokofiev's The Gambler can be sampled at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000JSAG/inktomi-musicasin-20/102-6792259-3511358 )

2. Another great bargain amongst Universal's special offers is Prokofiev's neglected later opera Semyon Kotko, premiered in 1940, and reviewed when the Kirov brought it to London, the two CDs presented by Philips with a lavish 300 page booklet.

'PROKOFIEV: Semyon Kotko Kirov Opera Company/Gergiev. Royal Opera House, London. 13 July 2000
- - - I was fortunate to be able to see the Kirov's Semyon Kotko, and War & Peace too, with standby & return tickets. I preferred the non-realistic Kotko production to the more conventional one of War & Peace, and indeed the lesser-known opera Semyon Kotko as a whole also.

There is no denying that the last act is a dreadful let-down, but there is a long tradition of jingoistic opera, even in England (see my S&H review of Purcell's King Arthur!). But Act 3 is a towering masterpiece in Prokofiev's whole oeuvre.

The Kirov CDs are magnificent, and the passage leading up to Lyubka's lament for her sailor betrothed (Ekterina Solovieva,Track 10) to the end of the Act is overwhelming - once heard, you will never forget the endlessly repeated cry of anguish, which is eventually taken up by the whole chorus. (PGW, Editor Seen&Heard, July 2000)

© Peter Grahame Woolf