Asmik Grigorian\'s comeback: Polina in Prokofiev\'s opera “The Gambler” in Vilnius

By Rima Jūraitė 2020 03 19
Opera "The Gambler". Photo by Martynas Aleksa

February 12-15, 2020, Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater (LNOBT) in Vilnius presented the premiere of Sergey Prokofiev's opera “The Gambler”. Libretto for this opera was written by the composer himself, it is based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's autobiographic novel “The Gambler.” This performance is a co-production - the first premiere took place in Basel, Switzerland, in 2018.

Undoubtedly, the main reason this particular opera traveled from Basel to Vilnius is the fact that Polina's part is being performed by Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian. In 2019, Grigorian had received the highest awards in the opera world and “The Gambler” is her comeback to LNOBT stage after the decade long break. Having built a successful international career, Grigorian now has a booked schedule with roles and debuts worldwide for several seasons ahead. Therefore, it is important to note that the present LNOBT general manager Jonas Sakalauskas perceived the importance of inviting Grigorian to work here and found the ways for it to be possible. A bit more than ten years ago the soloist created and performed remarkable roles here: Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro”, Violetta in “La Traviata” and others.

After her role of Salome in Richard Strauss' opera under the same name (directed by Romeo Castellucci) in 2018 and 2019, one expected to see a new live role of the same or at least close caliber. Prokofiev's “The Gambler” gives quite a more modest material for a soprano but in Polina's role, one can clearly feel the mesmerism of Grigorian's vocal acting abilities, as well as her modern, artistical soloist-personality, setting opera's theatricality free (or, more precisely, giving back the theatricality to the opera).

“The Gambler's” staging was created by a Russian director of the young generation, Vasily Barchatov. This young director already has an impressive creative biography with a repertoire of Russian composers, meanwhile, his works created in Lithuania distinguish Barchatov as an apologist of realistic style and Russian coloring (before “The Gambler”, he staged Piotr Tchaikovsky's “Eugene Onegin” in 2012 in LNOBT).  

In “The Gambler”, Barchatov transfers the action of the performance into nowadays: the plot is evolving in and around economy class hostel. Throughout all the performance, we see sterile, tidy and thrifty interior and exterior of the hostel, and the gambling joint facilities are available to the characters of the play while sitting on the sofa, using smartphones or computers - their stakes are maximized on the building walls, while emotions of the gamblers are being translated using live selfie mode (set designer - Zinovy Margolin, video artists - 2BLCK).

Commenting on the directing concept of “The Gambler”, opera critic Rima Jūraitė ( notes: “In his staging, director Vasily Barchatov seems to have been achieving to convey polyphonic storytelling principles characteristic to Dostoyevsky. Most of the time, performance is taking place in several rooms of a three-storey building at once - in some, the director settles the main mise en scènes, in others, he leaves the secondary characters to act. This way, Barchatov reveals that in almost every episode of “The Gambler”, all the characters are related. Though the scenery conjoins the story “under one roof”, Barchatov divides the performance into separate etudes and, despite their synchrony, conveys the linear / straight story. This way, life at the roulette table and life on this side of the casino door remain like two hermetic, almost not contacting worlds - characters bring only the results from the first world to the second, and not emotions.  

Musicologist Jūratė Katinaitė ( evaluated successful stage teamwork of both main roles' performers - Asmik Grigorian as Polina and Dmitry Golovnin as Alexey - on the stage of Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater. “Grigorian is experienced in performing modernistic production of the beginning of 20th century - before Polina's role created in Basel, she had already performed Marie's role in Alban Berg's “Wozzeck”; besides, a useful experience was Mrs. Lovett's role in Stephen Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd”, and right after creating Polina, Grigorian took part in a concert performance of Strauss' “Elektra” in Amsterdam's “Concertgebouw” hall and then performed in legendary “Salome” (Salzburg Festival). In 2019, the soloist had her debut in “La Scala” theater with Marietta's role in Erich Wolfgang Korngold's “The Dead City”, and this year she'll debut on London's Royal Opera House's stage in Covent Garden, as Janufa in Leoš Janáček's opera under the same title and she'll perform further as Elektra in Salzburg Festival. <...> It is obvious that in the market of international opera art, Asmik Grigorian is establishing herself as the performer of the operas of the 20th century, the leader of her generation. Though Polina is quite the main character in “The Gambler” (at least she is the one making the plot evolve), this role is fairly modest in the terms of vocal extent. However, every time Polina / Grigorian showed up on stage, it was enchaining with artistic and vocal suggestiveness”, - says Jūratė Katinaitė in her review. Further on, she notes: “Alexey's vocal role is developed incomparably stronger. Dmitry Golovnin, the admirable performer of the role, a soloist of St. Petersburg's Michailovsky Theatre, is constantly being invited to perform in the West. <...> Wonderful Golovnin's vocal is a strong, but not forced sound, well-handled dynamic scale, evolving dramatic amplitude of the role.”

Musicologist Rasa Murauskaitė ( draws attention to the musical interpretation and performance of “The Gambler”: “It's gratifying that this time it is possible to admire the orchestra of LNOBT and the conductor Modestas Pitrėnas. They successfully managed to master a difficult and untypical piece for the theater repertoire, not getting into big compromises - there were clear climax moments, nuances, a clear understanding of the dramaturgy, and it all created an affirmative impression.

This staging of “The Gambler” with main performers Asmik Grigorian and Dmitry Golovnin will be in the repertoire of Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre during season 2020/2021.

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