Without doubt, Richard Jones's production of Prokofiev's opera The Gambler makes for an exciting, even fascinating theatrical event. However, some of the story line of the libretto is problematic, and – although powerful – Prokofiev's score is not immediate.
The libretto is based on Dostoevsky's novel, which is a dark tale. It deals with negative human traits – such as greed, betrayal, and (above all) obsession – without sufficient positives to counterbalance them. Prokofiev, who wrote the libretto for his opera, made slight changes to the Dostoevsky story and he also altered his original first version (of 1917) when it was premiered in Brussels in 1929. It is this latter version which the Royal Opera House is now showing in Richard Jones's imaginative staging.
There are no positive characters in the plot. All of them are rich or strive to be rich by any means. With his deep love for Paulina, Alexey – the teacher – could be an exception but he is too weak to resist Paulina's illogical and cruel behaviour, furthermore he becomes obsessed with gambling. The General is trapped: he needs money to marry gold-digger Blanche, whom he adores, but his only hope for money is an inheritance from rich aunt Babulenka. In this milieu, peopled with aristocrats and cheats, the General has no other possibility to gain finance. So when Babulenka gambles away all her money, the General is finished (and Blanche changes alliance).
All the other characters in this opera are manipulative or greedy or heartless. There are moments, when one thinks that Paulina will come through as the catalyst but she does not.
The story is placed in the fictional German town of Roulettenburg. Although the Casino is the main feature of the plot as well as the stage design, Jones sets the first act in the zoo. In this concept, it is us the audience who are watching the animalistic behaviour of people, although at any given time there are characters (added to the plot by Jones) looking at the caged animals of the Roulettenburg zoo. In the highly tense gambling scene of the last act, on a projection screen there is a tiger spacing up and down in a small cage, thus again indicating the beasts in humans. For me, this animal analogy is convincing. However, Jones also uses animals for distraction and to bring in light relief to the admittedly almost unbearably dark story. At the end of the first act, love-stricken Alexey is instructed by her adored Paulina to insult the Baron and the Baroness. According to the score he does so, but at that point Jones brings in a performing seal – very convincingly played in a seal costume and in seal positions by an unnamed Royal Opera House actor – and one is compelled to focus on the seal. Perhaps Jones's motive is to show that Alexey turns into a performing seal under the spell of Paulina, but diverting the audience's attention from the confrontation between Alexey and the Baroness seems a shame.
There is an unusually great number of characters in this opera. For better or worse, Jones adds a great many more. To choreograph the allegro passionato overture, Jones has scores of people frantically running around the stage until the first vocal entry. In the final scene of the opera, Alexey is supposed to be left alone (by Paulina) in his room. Although, by then, he is so obsessed with gambling that he does not seem to feel the pain of Paulina's departure, bringing in another group of people to the room (presumably hoping to get some of Alexey's money) alters the opera's premise of final loneliness of the gambler. There are several other additions, including the cleaner who is on stage almost all the time. Thus when Prokofiev writes private music for individual characters, the privacy on the stage is not always implemented. On the other hand, some of Jones's choreography of the driven sections of the score is humorous and appropriate: for instance, a revolving door keeps moving and churning out people during motor-like semiquaver passages.
The music is not easy to grasp on one hearing. Nobody will leave the theatre whistling the tunes; yet later Prokofiev scores – such as Peter and the Wolf, Romeo and Juliet, War and Peace – are full of well defined melodies. However, the music is powerful and brilliant throughout. The gambling ensemble of several soloists in the last act is a tour de force by the composer.
Tenor Roberto Saccá (Alexey) sang beautifully. However, if I did not know the story, I would have not known that his character turned into an obsessive gambler. I recall Graham Clark's performance of this role at the English National Opera in 1983. His shades of voice brilliantly showed the journey from lovelorn teacher to a manic obsessive. Soprano Angela Denoke (Paulina) is clearly a strong singer, but Paulina's power to seduce Alexey for destructive actions was not evident in her performance. Tenor Kurt Streit (Marquis), mezzo soprano Susan Bickley (Babulenka) and baritone Mark Stone (Mr Astley) made strong appearances in their well defined roles.
The most rounded performance comes from bass John Tomlinson (The General). He sang the role for English National Opera in 1983, thus both music and the character have been in his blood for a long time. But he also brings his overall vast experience to the role. To my ears, Wagnerian drama (in which Tomlinson has excelled for decades) was evident in the General's dialogues at the beginning of the second act. Baron Ochs of the Rosenkavalier, trapped by lack of finance and ridiculed for his attempts to stay afloat, has some common features with The General (and both roles are in Tomlinson's repertoire). He is in fine voice throughout, showing brilliance and stamina during his extended mad scene in the third act. His falsetto pianissimo at the top range of the voice (when The General realises that Babulenka lost all her money, that is, his inheritance) and his powerful very low and clear solo notes a little later were master classes in vocal technique and musical comprehension.
Conductor Antonio Pappano obtained energetic but controlled contributions from the orchestra and chorus. The gambling scene of the ensemble soloists in the fourth act was breath-taking.
The opera is sung in David Pountney's English translation. It is clear and appropriate to the music. There are some wisecracks, which make the audience laugh but, to me, seem odd. For instance, I am still wondering about ‘The whole of Manchester has fewer crooks than this casino' although I understand why Rotschild of the original text was translated as Goldman Sachs.
In this production, the powerful score of a relatively young Prokofiev on a disturbing dark story by Dostoevsky is presented in a thought-provoking and exciting theatrical event. Go, learn and enjoy.
By Agnes Kory