- The Gambler, and: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
The two operas under review here share a similar history in that both were neglected in their homeland until after their composers' deaths. Prokofiev's The Gambler was written in 1916 and first performed with some revisions in Brussels in 1926. The first performance in the Soviet Union was a radio concert in 1963, but was not staged there until 1974 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was a huge success at its premiere in 1934, but was suppressed two years later after the infamous "chaos instead of music" article in Pravda which all but named Shostakovich as an enemy of the people. The composer revised the score, removing the objectionable passages in the 1960s, but it was not heard again in its original form until Mstislav Rostropovich recorded the unexpurgated score in 1978. Both operas are acknowledged now as masterpieces and have entered the repertory of opera houses around the world.
This performance of The Gambler was presented at Berlin's Staatsoper unter den Linden, produced in partnership with Milan's Teatro alla Scala. Director and designer Dmitri Tcherniakov has set Dostoevsky's tale of compulsive gamblers, spongers, and sycophants in a modern setting which works very well, and the cast gives uniformly excellent performances. Tenor, Misha Didyk and soprano, Kristine Opolais are young singers on the rise and both meet the demands, musical and dramatic, of the difficult roles of Alexei and Paulina. The two veterans in the cast, bass Vladimir Ognovenko as the General and mezzo-soprano Stefania Toczyska as Grandmama are thoroughly immersed in their roles and are a joy to watch. While Prokofiev's music does not seem to figure largely (if at all) in Daniel Barenboim's repertoire, he conducts the score stylishly, if a bit slower than his Russian colleagues on the three audio recordings which have been issued. Other than a DVD release of a 1966 Soviet film, which uses actors lip-synching to an abridged version of Gennady Rozhdestvensky's premiere recording, this is the first video release of any staged performances of The Gambler, and it is highly recommended.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino's production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. There have been two very fine productions of this opera from Barcelona and Amsterdam released previously on DVD, in addition to a 1966 film of the bowdlerized version which stars Galina Vishnevskaya in a stunning performance, and all of them outshine this effort. Musically, this production from Florence is never less than satisfactory, and the stage production is attractive in its design. James Conlon gets some very fine playing from the orchestra, and the singers cope with the often treacherous vocal writing capably if without effacing memories of previous interpretations, but dramatically it is one of the worst acted performances I have ever seen on DVD. Only Vladimir Vaneev as Boris and Natascha Petrinsky as Sonetka show any sort of stage presence or involvement in the drama. The others, especially soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in the title role, spend the entire opera staring at the conductor, with only the occasional mugged facial expression to indicate any sort of emotion or character. The staging is credited to Lev Dodin, the director of St. Petersburg's Maly Theatre, but there is no evidence of any directorial hand here: chorus and soloists wander on and off stage without any sense of why they are doing so. If this were the only version of the opera on DVD it could be shrugged off as a stopgap until something better came along, but with the other performances available, there is simply no need for it.