Tonight, The Royal Opera will premiere a completely new production of Prokofiev's The Gambler. Directed by ROH stalwart Richard Jones, the production is sung in English and stars many of the country's leading singers, not least Sir John Tomlinson.
But the cast also includes Angela Denoke, the German-born soprano who is rapidly becoming a London favourite. Having recently excelled as Chrysothemis in the LSO's Elektra, she has plans to appear at Covent Garden twice this season: first, as Polina in The Gambler, and later, in the title role of the revival of David McVicar's production of Salome. I caught up with her during the final week of rehearsals to ask her about her approach to these two roles, and her future plans.
The Gambler isn't performed very often, and many people in the Covent Garden audience won't have heard it before. Denoke is enthusiastic about the opera's strengths: 'Prokofiev clearly delineates each Dostoyevsky character and the tension between them with music that is unbelievably varied in its support of the action. One could think of it more as a play with music, like one of R. Strauss' Konversationstuecke. However the real strength of the piece lies in the libretto, which is of course a reduction from the novel. One is pulled into the story, and it holds your attention throughout.'
The soprano also has a very clear view of her character: 'Polina is the only character not infected with gambling in some way. Money is a negative for her because she has learnt that men who have it see her only as an object. She believes that Alexej is different only to realize at the end that he's the same as all the others. Polina is in many ways a smart and confident woman but very unhappy as well. She is the only one who really seeks to change her life at the end. Richard Jones worked with me to make this aspect of her character clear. Unfortunately, this may not be easily perceived, as her role is not so perfectly defined in the opera. However, I think we have found a way to get there.'
I ask her about Jones' approach to the opera, but she responds: 'That is not easy for me to answer. You must first see the production. Richard has painted each character in a very precise and meticulous manner. I could imagine that with more than one viewing of his production one would discover more details that would enrich one's understanding of the piece. I like working with Richard very much.'
What have been the main concerns of Antonio Pappano's interpretation during rehearsals? 'We sing the production in English, and Maestro Pappano has placed a lot of weight on the fact that we must always be understood. However, he also works with the musical colours and the rhythmic richness of the piece in such a way that the music itself isn't lost in the process. I've enjoyed working with him very much for this very reason.'
As for Salome, she says it 'is of course one of the great roles, and as with all great roles there is always the chance to look at it anew and discover another interpretation. This will be my third production, and I already know from the DVD that it is totally different from the others I have sung. But the music itself allows for many different interpretations of this complex character. It's not an easy part to play or sing. My entire body has to be involved, but it's a role I love to sing.'
Denoke's repertoire includes a large number of the Janacek roles. Is this because his music is a good fit for her voice, or because something about his operas appeals to her artistically? 'Actually both of these things apply. The first time I worked on a Janacek opera (Jenufa) it was a revelation for me. He creates wonderful portraits of women in particular, and each of his female roles has a musical voice all of their own that speaks directly to an audience. For this reason they are especially good for me.'
I ask the soprano about any new roles she might like to add to her repertoire, but she replies: 'I've had the good fortune to have been offered most of my dream parts already. The last one was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which I hope to sing again somewhere. There are future offers I'd rather not discuss at the moment. Until now all these parts have come at exactly the right time, and I hope this continues in the future.'
Denoke recently devised a special song/chanson programme, 'Von Babelsberg bis Beverly Hills', so I ask her about her inspiration for it. 'This project came about because I wanted to sing these songs (Kurt Weill, Hollender and Mackeben among others) with good musicians. I met these musicians in Berlin, and together we have gone on an “expedition” back in time to find pieces that would fit a classically trained voice like mine singing with modern jazz musicians. We have chosen songs from German composers some of whom stayed and some of whom left Germany and went to America before, during and after World War II. Each has his own story to tell. We are scheduled to do the programme at La Scala in Milano, Madrid, Berlin and Bruges. If asked, we'd be delighted to do it in London as well!'
Music has always been part of the singer's life: 'I started playing the piano at four. It was my principal instrument when I intended to become a teacher. I didn't begin to sing until later, and that this has become my career surprises me to this day.'
I ask her about her personal career highlights to date. 'There are many performances I remember fondly,' she says, 'and it's not always the premieres that I remember. Special meetings and especially intense performances one never forgets. One such performance for me was Katja Kabanova in Salzburg, which changed not just my career but my private life as well. I met my husband David Kuebler.'
As for future ambitions, she concludes, 'I'm going to stick with it and roll with the punches! Life will show me the way to go, and whatever comes I will try my best to do it well.'
Photos of the new ROH Gambler are copyright Clive Barda/The Royal Opera.
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