To commemorate the 110 anniversary of the birth of Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975), the Novaya Opera Theatre presented a production of the composer’s piece which he called “unreal”.
The unfinished opera The Gamblers is Shostakovich’s second piece (after The Nose opera) based on the play by the Russian author Nikolay Gogol (1809–1852). It was created soon after Symphony No. 7 in C major during 1941 and 1942. He wanted to write a new opera according to the text of the play without any cuts. (Mussorgsky worked the same way while creating The Marriage (1868), based on Gogol’s play of the same name).The libretto was a word-for-word copy of the play, and the opera was to be very long. That was why it was not finished: ”I’d written approximately one-third of the opera, recalled Shostakovich, and then realized that the music lasted approximately an hour, and I decided that further work was meaningless. Shostakovich broke off work in the middle of a bar, at the line: ”Guests and hosts…” and never ever returned to the score. After a while, he gave the manuscript to his student, composer Galina Ustvolskaya, who kept it till the early 1970s. At the close of his days Shostakovich, without intending to continuing the work on the opera, took the score back and used some excerpts of it in his last piece, Sonata for Viola and Piano (1975).
After Shostakovich’s death, the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky made slight alterations in The Gamblers and completed the opera. Firstly, it was performed in the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Conservatory by singers of the Moscow Chamber Music Theatre and the Leningrad State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky on September 18, 1978. The Polish composer Krzysztof Meyer made his own version of the opera, composing music to the rest of the text which had not been used by Shostakovich. It was premiered on June 12, 1983, at the opera theatre in Wuppertal (Germany). In Russia Shostakovich’s unfinished opera The Gamblers was premiered in the Moscow Chamber Music Theatre in 1990 (director Boris Pokrovsky).
There are few characters in The Gamblers, as Shostakovich used only six characters (all male) out of Gogol’s nine. The plot of the opera does not have a love line, common to most operas. The Gamblers is a story about card-sharps trying to beat each other in cheating. The action is set in a small Russian town, in one room.
A card-sharp, Ikharev, arrives at an inn. The innkeeper’s servant Aleksey tells him that there are three more guests at the inn. They are gamblers and recently have cheated several people out of big sums. Ikharev decides to capot them and heads off to the main hall to measure his opponents. Meanwhile two of them, Shvokhnev and Krugel, sneak into his room and extort from Gavryushka, Ikharev’s servant, that his master has won recently eighty thousand. Shvokhnev and Krugel suspect that Ikharev is a card-sharp, but finally, decide to try to capot him. When alone, Gavryushka descants upon advantages of being a gentleman. Ikharev bribes Aleksey and gives him a pack of marked cards. Very soon the three gamblers make a visit to Ikharev. After talking about the importance of being honest, about one’s duty to society and about cheese, the gentlemen decide to play cards. Ikharev tells Aleksey to bring the pack of cards. During the game Shvokhnev, Krugel and Uteshitelny fully realize that Ikharev is a master. Then they come clean and offer Ikharev to join forces with them for the sake of a common gain. Ikharev agrees. They exchange a few stories about cards and sharpers. Shostakovich’s original opera breaks off at the story about Dergunov, a landowner, told by Uteshitelny (Scene 8 in Gogol’s comedy). In Rozhdestvensky’s version, Uteshitelny’s story is followed by Gavrushka’s monologue repeated in a shorter form.
Says Aleksey Veiro, stage director:
”Play is impartial; it is no respecter of persons. Let my own father sat down at a game with me – I’d skin him the same as any stranger,” says Uteshitelny. Gamblers are people who do not accept any rules. The best gambler is the one who improvises, respects no rules and capots.
The main character, Ikharev, is a romantic gambler, a poet gambler; he even calls his pack of cards “Adelaida Ivanovna”, and this feminine image always follows him. But the people he meets with are rogues, they don’t comply with the rules, gamble for everything and against everyone. At the end of the play Ikharev comes to realize the true state of affairs. He says: “Rotten world, that’s all. All swindlers.” And there again his idealism shows itself: he doesn’t think for a minute that he has anything to do with it. He is all right, but the erratic world should be changed!