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By Joel Kasow

LYON, FRANCE, 18 FEBRUARY 2009 - Of Sergei Prokofiev's eight operas, The Gambler most likely comes just after War and Peace, The Love of Three Oranges and Betrothal in a Monastery in number of performances. Based on a Dostoevsky short novel, adapted by the composer for the stage, The Gambler follows the Mussorgskian mode of heightened speech, with few moments of lyric expansion. The opera was presented as part of a Festival of Lost Heros (other productions were Philip Glass' In the Penal Colony and Frank Martin's Vin Herbé), but the only one presented at the opera house. In the best "new" Lyonnaise tradition, the work was shifted from mid-19th century Baden-Baden to contemporary Las Vegas, and of course we were not spared an army of extras including three chambermaids who washed the windows for a good ten minutes before the opera began, a porter who traversed the stage far too often with the same two valises, etc., etc. Director Grzegorz Jarzyna encouraged the principals so that their performances evoked Dostoevskyan themes, but some of the stylized movements for secondary roles seemed out-of-sync with the music and perhaps more appropriate to Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk.

Misha Didyk as Alexei in The Gambler
Photo: Jean-Pierre Maurin

Misha Didyk in the title role of Alexei allowed us to hear a tenor of great solidity throughout his range, but his acting lacked the hallucinatory quality that should characterize his personage. Kristine Opolais, despite unflattering costumes (don't the designers ever look at the finished product?), was a convincing Paulina with her gleaming voice that easily cut through the orchestra. Alexander Teliga's General was a bit too young, however powerful his bass voice, but what can be said of the far-from-frail Babulenka of Marianna Tarasova, decidedly not the doddering figure imagined by Prokofiev. Eberhard Francesco Lorenz was definitely a lounge lizard as the Marquis, while Andrew Schroeder's Astley, Vasily Efimov's Prince and Maria Gortsevskaya's Blanche fulfilled their missions. There was, however, little notion of social class in Jarsyna's production, something that is nonetheless important in the work.

Kristina Opolais (Paulina) and Misha Didyk (Alexei) in The Gambler
Photo: Jean-Pierre Maurin

Sets and costumes by Magdalena Maria Maciejewska must have been in accord with the director's concept. While striking, allowing us to watch all sorts of irrelevant byplay, the primary colors of the décor gave little scope for subtlety, while remarkably similar costumes for most of the women in the gambling scene allowed little of the differentiation specified by the composer. Kazushi Ono, newly appointed permanent conductor of the Lyons Opera Orchestra, occasionally allowed the orchestra to get out of control in what can sometimes be a noisy score, but he never allowed tension to flag.

While not destined to be a pillar of the repertory, The Gambler is nonetheless a valuable addition to the list of works that merit periodic revival not only for its intrinsic worth but also because it allows us to recognize an aspect of Prokofiev's work that is usually relegated to a subsidiary position. As a study of compulsive behavior it is also worth attention from time to time.

Joel Kasow is the opera editor at Culturekiosque.com

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