Martha Jungwirth, Moi, 1998
Aquarell auf handgeschöpftem Papier, 105 x 71 cm
Foto: © Auktionshaus im Kinsky GmbH, Wien
© Martha Jungwirth/Bildrecht, Wien 2023

‘What a pleasure it would be for me to throw all this accursed money into his face.’

Throughout his life, Sergey Prokofiev experimented avidly with virtually every possible musical genre. In most of them, he wrote masterpieces that earned him a certain recognition. In opera, however, frustration and a sense of failure prevailed. The composer’s opera projects were systematically misunderstood, thwarted, delayed or cancelled – at odds with history.

The Gambler is Prokofiev’s first major opera, which he embarked upon in 1914 by adapting a short novel by Dostoyevsky. In this work, the novelist probes his own addiction to gambling to tell the story of a rush to the abyss, a merciless act of self-destruction. In so doing, he dissects our general appetite for easy gains and quick successes. The book is set in the casino of an imaginary town, Roulettenburg, where various characters meet and clash – among them a General in debt to a greedy Marquis, the General’s spiteful stepdaughter Polina, and Alexey, who is in love with her.

The Gambler marked the first time in history that a novel by Dostoyevsky had been adapted for opera. Dispensing with a librettist, the composer drew directly from the novel, extracting sentences from it and arranging them himself. He found in this short work enough material to write a resolutely radical score, liberated from division into musical numbers and held together from start to finish by gripping musical prose. The orchestra is dominated by a haunting ostinato that conveys the passions stirring in the casino. Prokofiev submitted his project to Sergey Diaghilev, who rejected it out of hand. The composer did not admit defeat, however, and persevered. The premiere of The Gambler was on the brink of becoming a reality in 1917, when pioneering director Vsevolod Meyerhold planned to stage it at the Mariinsky Theatre. Meyerhold saw in The Gambler an opportunity for authentic avant-garde opera, a work capable of pushing the genre into entirely new dimensions. From the outset, a highly creative spirit of emulation took hold of both composer and director, promising an extraordinary work. But suspicion spread like wildfire during the opera’s preparation: the singers rejected the score on the grounds that it was unsingable, the bourgeois intelligentsia were suspicious of a work labelled ‘futuristic’, and the revolutionaries considered Dostoyevsky to be decadent. The final blow was dealt by the October Revolution. The project was abandoned.

Prokofiev continued to fight throughout his life to stage The Gambler. Ten years after this aborted premiere, he revised his score – amending the vocal parts and tightening up the orchestration until he had arrived at cataclysmic episodes, particularly the breathtaking climax of the third act, in which all the characters’ voices and aspirations intertwine in a truly unprecedented whirlwind.

The premiere of The Gambler finally took place in Brussels in April 1929, albeit in a French translation of the libretto. In Russia, however, the political environment was unfavourable to a project that did not satisfy any of the canons of socialist realism. Meyerhold, a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge, was executed in 1940. The avant-garde opera dreamed up by two visionary artists never came to fruition. The first Russian production of The Gambler took place only in 1974 – almost twenty years after Prokofiev’s death.

Today, Prokofiev’s opera is at once relevant and topical, indeed, astonishingly so. Uncertainty and anxiety dominate the spirit of the age. Every morning brings a new gamble. Fortunes are made and lost in the blink of an eye. More than ever, the casino and the feeling of suspense that permeates it are metaphors for our world, its frenzy and abysses. It is a safe bet that director Peter Sellars, renowned for his penetrating approach to little-known and forgotten masterpieces, will invite us to show the same courage as Dostoyevsky and Prokofiev – the courage to confront our dark sides, the courage to question our moral contradictions, the courage to look ourselves in the face.

Antonio Cuenca Ruiz
Translation from the French: Patrick Lennon

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12. December 2023
The Gambler | Salzburg Festival 2024 – Statement Peter Sellars
19. January 2024
The Gambler · Programme presentation Markus Hinterhäuser
The Gambler | Salzburg Festival 2024 – Statement Peter Sellars
The Gambler · Programme presentation Markus Hinterhäuser

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