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December 18, 2013 5:50 pm
Grandmother, to everyone’s disappointment, is very much alive. Dyed red hair freshly frizzed, lackeys surrounding her, she holds court at the dining table and watches her family squirm. Only the tutor Alexei, broke and in love with her granddaughter, has nothing to lose.
Andrea Breth’s new production of The Gambler for the Netherlands Opera is minutely observed and utterly black. Prokofiev’s score already paints Dostoyevsky’s characters with brutal realism as nasty, self-absorbed opportunists. Breth simply follows his lead, exposing each character flaw mercilessly, letting the tale unfold with cinematic clarity.
For Dostoyevsky’s casino, halls and rooms, Martin Zehetgruber has concocted a revolving set in which the inevitable decay of his money-grubbing aristocrats is reflected by smudged windows, sagging furniture and wilting pot-plants. Breth moves her throng of characters like the complex inner workings of a clock, each cog turning with the others in its own slick isolation. In its constant swirls of motion, its cloying sense of stasis, its latent hysteria and emptiness, Breth’s handiwork is breathtaking.
Marc Albrecht drives the Residentie Orkest with remorseless ferocity, giving us as hard-edged and unforgiving a sound-world as Breth’s pitiless staging. Not one character is likeable, and it is a tribute to the excellent cast that each delivers a meticulously repellent performance. Even Alexei’s passion and sincerity are lent a narcissistic bitterness by John Daszak, in his blistering account of the title role. Sara Jakubiak is a seductive, calculating Polina, lending bell-like vocal clarity a cruel edge, Pavlo Hunka’s General is a conniving fool, Gordon Gietz gives his heroic tenor a slimy touch as the Marquis, while Renate Behle is superbly malicious as grandmother Babulenka.
All the smaller roles are well cast, and even the supernumeraries move with the focused precision of the lead roles. Just the slightest subversion, an unscripted twist of perversity, might have made this production even more gripping, but as it is, this is superb music theatre, a repugnant tale told with fine artistry.
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