Lyric Opera

A couple of years ago Lyric launched its “Toward the 21st Century” initiative, which was intended to “show the direction opera is taking as the turn of the new century looms.” Under this heading Lyric planned to stage contemporary or neglected works that had found favor with an establishment elite but had been roundly ignored by general audiences. Given that this season’s two installments of the initiative, Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra and Prokofiev’s The Gambler, are 25 and 60 years old, one is led to believe that Lyric management is actually currying favor with the critics rather than charting the course of opera for the 21st century. Enormously popular 20th-century favorites such as Madama Butterfly (1904), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), and Turandot (1926) earned their places in the repertory immediately. Britten’s Peter Grimes premiered in 1945 and received its due as well. The Gambler and Antony and Cleopatra both had their chance to win a place in the sun–and they failed. If opera has a future, it does not lie with these dead ends of the 20th century.

Basically The Gambler is a juvenile work, composed while Prokofiev was in his mid-20s. He made revisions a dozen years later, but they didn’t render the score any more modern, just a bit more performable. Of course at a corresponding stage in his life Verdi was composing such deathless works as Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio.

Prokofiev based his work (for which he also prepared the libretto) on a story by Dostoyevski written and set in the 1860s. Prokofiev moved the setting forward about 50 years to the eve of World War I, which has no important effect on the characters or action, though it reveals the intellectual wellspring of the opera, which is an extended socialist whine about how bad money is. This contempt for money (all the characters disdain yet desire it) is stock leftist cant. Especially interesting is Alexey’s contempt for money acquired through work and savings–though evidently money won at the gaming tables is OK. He repeatedly excoriates Germans for their petit-bourgeois virtues and claims that in a few generations such practices will turn the persevering family into Rothschilds. Fingering the cosmopolitan Rothschild family as the unpalatable product of bourgeois behavior seems to border on a kind of cocktail-party anti-Semitism.

The action takes place at a German resort town. Alexey, tutor to the General’s children, has gambled away all the money garnered by hocking the jewels of the General’s stepdaughter, Pauline, who asked Alexey to help her. The General himself is in debt and getting in deeper all the time by borrowing from the sleazy Marquis. Salvation for the General lies in the eagerly awaited death of his mother- in-law, Babushka. Pauline demands that Alexey insult the Baroness Wurmerhelm as proof of his devotion. He does, and gets fired. Babushka turns up at the casino to blow all her liquid assets at the tables, evidently motivated primarily by spite. Alexey takes a wild plunge at the casino in an attempt to redeem Pauline’s property and gets lucky. But the perverse Pauline will not have the money as a gift. She seduces him, then turns down the money on the grounds that it would be demeaning to accept it for services rendered.

So far we have a formula that with a little tweaking would gladden the heart of some arts commissar. However, the music is not in the pompous socialist-hero style, though neither does it have the quirky cleverness of the score for The Love for Three Oranges; the hopeful operagoer can’t look for relief in the sounds welling up from the pit. Extensive cutting of the score by the composer did not salvage an otherwise indifferent work.

This production is dominated by Felicity Palmer as Babushka. She stands out vocally above both Jacque Trussel as Alexey and Sheri Greenawald as Pauline. Emily Golden, who did a decent job in last year’s Carmen, seems wasted in the role of the General’s shallow mistress, Blanche. Stephen West’s baritone was adequate for the declamatory role of the General. John Duykers was suitably slimy as the Marquis, while Robert Orth imparted dignity to the character of Mr. Astley, the interested onlooker and probably the only major character who isn’t bad, or at least bad tempered.

The set and costume designs by Radu and Miruna Boruzescu are clever and attractive as they go through kaleidoscopic changes in response to the energetic direction of Liviu Ciulei, particularly evident in the frantic gambling scenes in the last act. The Lyric Orchestra negotiated the score without mishap, and without much enthusiasm, under the direction of Bruno Bartoletti.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.