Compulsive gambling, legacy hunting and unrequited love in Russian. In the end, only loss. And most of all: an opera that no-one below pensionable age in Vienna has ever seen live. Clearly, the Vienna State Opera could have made things easier for both itself and the audience than to stage Prokofiev’s The Gambler, based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, as the first première of the new season. But you can’t buy courage, and the Viennese audience knows how to appreciate ambitious projects.

Misha Didyk © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Misha Didyk
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Unquestionably, Dostoyevsky is one of the great storytellers of all time, not least because he did not actually write The Gambler, his somewhat autobiographical novel, but rather, he dictated it. The novel paints a terrifying picture of the depths of the human soul, but also provides much comedy in a bizarre world, especially by the time Prokofiev, who wrote his own libretto, has cut out a third of the story: in the fictional gambling metropolis of Roulettenburg, a debt-laden General is waiting impatiently for the death of a rich aunt; the eagerly awaited inheritance will, amongst other things, enable him to marry a sexy Frenchwoman named Blanche. However, as the said aunt suddenly appears and loses her fortune at roulette, the result is perfect financial and amorous storm. Alexei, the central character in the story, is by no means unguilty: he has already lost his job as the General’s private tutor due to his slavish devotion to the General’s stepdaughter Polina, for whom his feelings are distinctly more than those appropriate to a servant.

It turns out that this enigmatic person, just like her stepfather, has debts to a French marquis, and other disasters happen to them. She does not want anything, not even from Alexei, who suddenly has a streak of luck at roulette. In the end, Alexei is alone and has lost his wits (in this staging, he grows animal claws, with which he murders Polina).

Elena Guseva © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Elena Guseva
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

To show the animalistic side of an addict in this way departs from the original work (Alexei is not a murderer), but it’s an ending that makes plenty of sense  in Karoline Gruber’s carefully thought out and visually interesting staging: after events have been happily spinning around in a circle, namely the shape of a run-down merry-go-round, symbolic both of the roulette wheel and of the vicious circle of gambling addiction, it puts an end to these childish desires for satisfaction.

Addiction shows its abhorrent, deadly grimace. When one thinks about how many lives are destroyed, how many families are destroyed because of addiction to betting and gaming, Gruber is not overstating the case. She has taken such care in the meticulously detailed direction of her characters that one never loses track of the numerous people on the stage. This is also helped by the device that the performers of the main roles are highlighted in colour, while the minor figures are pale and undistinguished. You can read from this that  addicts are first and foremost concerned with themselves and their addiction, and only slightly do they consider their environment.

Linda Watson © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Linda Watson
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Simone Young is ideal partner for Gruber. With her direction (and many hours of study), with great engagement, skill and precision, she ensures that Prokofiev’s ideas come together into a true musical mosaic – amongst those ideas being the need for a large orchestra and 31 voices. Well-defined structure is also essential, in this kind of conversation piece in which arias and other fixed forms are absent, to maintain the tension. The language of the characters of Dostoyevsky’s novel is translated into music, but one doesn’t necessarily have to understand Russian, for example, to understand the mockery in the Bassoon. In any case, the major themes are tangible feelings (love, hope, anger), to which Prokofiev gives nervous and propulsive rhythms, which never come to rest. Like a roulette wheel, joy and disappointment follow tension , which is soon followed by the tension of the next round. In this way, the music behaves like in a ballet, almost physical, remaining as a result fascinatingly transparent. It is carefully worked such that when it is in danger of becoming too hysterical and shrill, it is never exaggerated or too thickly arranged.

However, the first two acts were somewhat long, perhaps because one has to get used to the music and the unrelenting, motorised pulse of this music is not only straining, but almost upsetting.

Elena Maximova © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Elena Maximova
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Of the many singers of this première, it’s impossible to single one out for the highest praise, not only because of flawless musical performance, but also because of the high concentration, involvement and acting quality, without which The Gambler would not work.  Notable where the two character tenors  Misha Didyk (Alexei) and Thomas Ebenstein (Marquis), as well as the deep but none the less clear bass of Dmitry Ulyanov (General). Elena Guseva and Elena Maximova impressed as the mysterious and versatile Polina and as the bimbo Blanche respectively.

None the less, the show was somewhat stolen by  Linda Watson as Babulenka: partly because the role was perfectly suited to her dramatic voice, and partly because the director gave her a really cool appearance: in a fur coat and with a small party hat on her head, she was the image of a cheerful elderly lady,  in the seat of her railway carriage. Thus goes grandeur!

Huge applause for all the participants: the Staatsoper has gambled and – at least artistically – has won.

Translated from German by David Karlin

****1