30 December 2007

Gambling, Debts, Opera

Yesterday, in my list of operas that will shortly be produced at The Met, I included without any special note The Gambler, an adaptation of the great Dostoyevsky novel of the same name. Both the music and the libretto are the creation of Sergei Prokofiev.

The origin of the Dostoyevsky novel is itself legendary. The great writer was addicted to the roulette tables himself, and he had to cook up something for publication fast to restore some level of contentment to the creditors he had acquired as a result. Pressed also to write on the deadline of an unforgiving publisher, he came up with a novella about -- debts and a casino.

That sounds like a prescription for a veritable hack-job of a novel. Still, Dostoyevsky was Dostoyevsky. He couldn't write a hack job, and of course he didn't.

You can read the result online:

The central character, who narrates the book in the first person, is the household employee of a general and his family who were once affluent but who are now living in tightened circumstances.

On the first page, the narrator has just returned from two weeks' leave. He tells us that things were different when he got back.

Of course, since this is the first page, we don't know what they had been like, so telling us that they had become different creates an air of mystery and plunges us into the middle of things, as an opening should.

The narrator's fascination with gambling is something he shares with several other characters in the novel, including a wealthy older woman called only Grandmother.

The General is waiting for Grandmother to die, because inheriting her wealth would ease his circumstances. She's in no hurry to help him out, and her displeasure with the deathwatch helps make her reckless at the roulette table -- at first recklessly successful, then ruinously (for the General's hopes) unsuccessful.

Here's one brief passage: "Yet now, when the Grandmother had just performed an astonishing feat at roulette; now, when the old lady's personality had
been so clearly and typically revealed as that of a rugged, arrogant woman who was 'tombee en enfance'; now, when everything appeared to be lost,--why, now the Grandmother was as merry as a child which plays with thistle-down."

I can certainly see how Grandmother would make a fine operatic character, but the complexity of the plot (quite intricate given its brevity) would seem to create some difficulties.

No comments:

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.