A Roll of the Dice

Never having staged a worK by Prokofiev before, the Metropolitan Opera has begun at the beginning: The Gambler, the first of the composer’s seven completed operas and the one that makes the fewest concessions to convention or to audiences expecting tuneful entertainment. Based on the Dostoevsky novella of the same name, this score written in 1915-17 finds young Prokofiev at the height of his acerbic fire-and-steel period, cultivating a declamatory vocal style and a nervous orchestral fabric that leaves no room for pretty arias or sure-fire set pieces. And given this tale of obsessives, sadists, spiteful snobs, and self-destructive neurotics, that may have been the best musical course to take.

The production exactly mirrors the opera’s sardonic manner and frantic pace. The plot unfolds in and around the casino of the Grand Hotel in “Roulettenberg,” a fictitious Central European spa where these unsavory types revel in their hopeless love affairs, greed for money, and pursuit of power. George Tsypin’s color-coded sets, Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili’s characterful costumes, and James F. Ingalls’s ingenious lighting effectively evoke the period (1865); they also help grease the action’s cinematic fluidity as well as provide powerful visual symbols – bilious roulette-table-green backgrounds, threatening mechanized wheels of fate that make subtle comments on the piece. Director Temur Chkheidze keeps the large cast in constant but always coherent motion, raising the temperature through the breathlessly hallucinatory gambling scene and the last ugly confrontation between Alexei and Polina.

Vladimir Galouzine’s extraordinary performance as Alexei may well even fascinate those repelled or bored by the uncompromising music. His flexible tenor is all of a piece from top to bottom, forceful and ringing when necessary but also capable of chilling piano effects, and possessed of a wide range of vocal dynamics that convey all the rapid mood swings of this unstable personality. His acting is no less detailed or imaginative, a frightening study of a weak, manipulated man on the brink who eventually topples to his doom. As Polina, the girl who pushes him hardest, Olga Guryakova is no less convincing, and the huge cast performs with the exquisite precision of a chamber ensemble.

The guiding musical spirit and godfather to the whole project is conductor Valery Gergiev, who brings out all the mordancy and instrumental color suggested by the notes. This production team first tackled the opera at Gergiev’s own Kirov Opera some six years ago and staged it in various European cities before developing this version for the Met. Given its connoisseur appeal, The Gambler is unlikely to return anytime soon, and we are lucky that the mechanics that make the international opera roulette wheel spin have allowed us to see it at all.

Two hours of persistent drumming may be few concertgoers’ idea of a good time, but the fans of Kodo, an ensemble of drummers from Japan, think otherwise. After attending the group’s recent performance in Carnegie Hall, this new fan does, too. First of all, there is plenty for the eye to take in, beginning with the instruments themselves, from the tiniest goblet drums to a gigantic double-headed barrel drum whose delicate carpentry and decorative design belie objects prepared to take the toughest beating. Then there is the athletic grace of the musicians, whose movements are often dictated by the shape and size of the instruments as well as the rhythms and dynamics of the music. There is also far more musical variety to savor than a newcomer might suspect, arrangements of traditional Japanese folk music and original contemporary compositions that exploit timbre, articulation, and metrical patterns to considerable dramatic effect. The name kodo is a homonym for the Japanese word for heartbeat, which probably explains better than anything the basic gut appeal of this remarkable ensemble.

The Gambler
Metropolitan Opera production of the Prokofiev opera.
The Japanese drumming ensemble, at Carnegie Hall.

A Roll of the Dice