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Opera in 4 acts
Libretto by the composer based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Igrok (1866) - Karlheinz Gutheim's German version
First performance of 2nd edition April 29th 1929, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels
c. 2 hrs 30 mins, including one interval
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote his novel The Gambler in only 26 days. He knew exactly what he was writing about because his own gambling had left him heavily in debt. He outlined the human emotions involved in adiction from the perspective of the young private tutor Alexej, who belongs to an entourage of a shady people in Roulettenburg and gets caught up in the madness of gambling. Prokofiev's opera does without grand gestures, seeing itself as a clear accompaniment to what is going on on stage. Director Harry Kupfer set this story about Russian society at the end of the 1920s in an enormous casino, with a spinning roulette wheel in its centre on which the gamblers become uncontrolled balls.
Alexej has gambled away the money which Polina, the General’s stepdaughter, had given him. Alexej says he can only win with his money. The General hopes his aunt, the Babushka, dies soon so that he can settle his debts with the Marquis and marry Blanche. Alexej is under Polina's spell, would do anything for her but is confused by her strange relationship with the Marquis, who lends the General more money, at an extortionate rate. Polina tests Alexej, ordering him to insult Baroness Wurmerhelm. He obeys. ACT 2 The General has apologised to Wurmerhelm and dismissed Alexej, who wants to challenge the Baron to a duel. Alexej discovers the reason for the General’s disproportionate reaction: Blanche had taken up with Wurmerhelm two years ago, which caused a stir; now that she has set her sights on the General she needs to avoid being recognised so it is essential that Alexej not challenge the Baron to a duel. While the General & Blanche thank the Marquis for his intervention, the Babushka turns up, announcing that she would rather gamble away her fortune than leave it to the General. She asks Alexej to help. ACT 3 She loses all her cash. The General & Marquis ask Alexej to stop her gambling, revealing their financial problems and interests. Blanche has set her sights on a new man, wealthy Prince Nilski. Alexej offers to help Polina, who admits that the Marquis exerts control over her. The General wants to try and make the Babushka change her mind, but is not admitted. ACT 4 The Babushka leaves. Polina asks Alexej for refuge. The Marquis plans to sell off the General’s possessions that were in hock to him and releases Polina from her debts in a humiliating letter. Alexej decides to help. He wins a fortune and gives Polina the sum she owes the Marquis. She is very upset, tells him she was the Marquis’ mistress, that he has now left her and that she does not want his charity. They profess their love, Polina even dreams of turning up at the Babuschka’s door in Moscow with him. The moment passes, she throws the money in his face and leaves.