Sunday 14 February 2010

The Gambler, Royal Opera, 11 February 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

(sung in English translation)

General – Sir John Tomlinson
Polina – Angela Denoke
Alexey Ivanovitch – Roberto Saccà
Babulenka – Susan Bickley
Marquis – Kurt Streit
Blanche – Jurgita Adamonytė
Mr Astley – Mark Stone
Prince Nilski – John Easterlin
Baron Würmerhelm – Jeremy White
Baroness Würmerheim – Emma Bernard
Potapytsch – Dawid Kimberg
Casino Director – Graeme Danby
First Croupier – Hubert Francis
Second Croupier – Robert Anthony Gardiner
Gaudy Lady – Simona Mihai
Pale Lady – Elisabeth Meister
Dubious Old Lady – Elisabeth Sikora
Lady Comme Ci, Comme Ça – Carol Rowlands
Venerable Lady – Kai Rüütel
Rash Gambler – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Hypochondriac Gambler – Steven Ebel
Hunchback Gambler – Alasdair Elliott
Aged Gambler – John Cunningham
Six Gamblers – Luke Price, Andrew O’Connor, John Bernays, Jonathan Coad, Olle Zetterström, Michael Lessiter
Fat Englisman – David Woloszko
Tall Englishman – Lukas Jakobski

Richard Jones (director)
Antony McDonald (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costume designs)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)

The Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

The Royal Opera’s new production of The Gambler seems to me close to an unqualified success. This is the company’s first production of what is, save for juvenilia, Prokofiev’s first opera: sadly, not an unusual state of affairs, since it was only a couple of years previously that I had seen the Berlin premiere under Daniel Barenboim, in a fine production by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Only produced once during the composer’s lifetime, there is certainly no good reason to shun Prokofiev’s Dostoyevsky opera now, for it is one of his strongest stage works, as Richard Jones, Antonio Pappano, and an excellent cast demonstrated.

The action is updated to what resembles the inter-war period, so the time of the 1929 Brussels premiere, though I suppose it could be the time of composition, during the previous decade. One might, if one were so minded, question how credible that makes some details of the plot but it works well and looks good taken in itself, and the work is not in any especially meaningful sense tied to a particular period. Antony Macdonald’s designs splendidly evoke the cosmopolitan but empty world of Roulettenbourg’s hotel, whilst Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes permit the eye to assist the ear in the delineation of what can sometimes be rather fleeting characterisation, minor characters coming and going in Prokofiev’s finely observed vignettes. One of Jones’s extra touches is to set the first act in an adjoining zoo, rather than a park. Ideas of animal behaviour and of caging – and a wonderful turn for a performing seal (not real!) – nicely sets up the world we shall explore more fully. Likewise the framing device of the CASINO sign in front of the curtain at the beginning of each of the four acts. Given the recent wrecking acts of what some people curiously term the ‘financial services industry,’ these ideas could hardly be more topical, yet temptation to agitprop, should Jones indeed have felt any, is firmly resisted.

The musical pacing was sometimes just a little fitful during the first two acts. I do not wish to exaggerate, but there were occasions when Prokofiev’s motor rhythms seemed to follow the singers, rather than drive them as they should. There was no such problem following the interval: perhaps partly a consequence of the composer’s ratcheting up the tension, but also a sign that Pappano felt more able to reconcile his colouristic revelations with that increased rhythmic drive so necessary to the depiction of intensified gambling addiction. The more the orchestra was given its head, the better, and the players were certainly on excellent form, revelling in Prokofiev’s virtuosic scoring. For its brief appearance, the chorus was on equally excellent form.

Roberto Saccà captured the difficult balance between Alexey’s weakness of character and his increasing determination. Character progression was also finely observed in Angela Denoke’s Polina, a rounded and, by the end, moving portrayal. Sir John Tomlinson’s inimitable way was well suited to the General; whatever his flaws, one could not help but sympathise. Jurgita Adamonytė and Kurt Streit captured the rootless world of the international demi-monde in their Blanche and Marquis, without resorting to the seductive prospect of the mere stock character. It was, perhaps unsusprisingly, Susan Bickley’s Babulenka who stole the show: a consequence of the role, doubtless, but also of this wonderful artist’s musico-dramatic skills and commitment. Stefania Toczyska had made an equally commanding impression in Berlin; when Babulenka arrives, the clock should stop, as it did on both of those occasions. She sees through the ghastly array of hangers-on and ensures with style that the General will not inherit a sou, whilst movingly evoking the Mother Russia to which she returns. Other characters come and go – this is not a criticism, but an observation of how the opera works – but special mention might go to Mark Stone’s enigmatic Mr Astley, a lynchpin and yet not, and Carol Rowlands’s telling Lady Comme Ci, Comme Ça: concerned or detached, who knows?

My sole cavil relates to the decision to perform the work in English: very much the director’s decision, according to Tomlinson, in the interview he gave me a few days earlier. I can see the arguments in favour, not least the speed of conversation. And I am sure that Tomlinson is right to observe that the Russian language does not have time to colour the music in the way that it does, say, in Mussorgsky. But the sound of the words is very different and nothing can quite compensate for that, even for a non-Russian speaker such as myself. Though diction was generally very good and in some cases, such as Tomlinson’s utterly beyond reproach, one inevitably must consult the surtitles from time and time, in which case one might as well have the sound of the original. In addition, the titles did not always keep pace with the delivery of the words: a little confusing. Nevertheless, this was in most respects a fine achievement, for which three cheers should go to the Royal Opera.