The Royal Opera have finally staged Prokofiev’s The Gambler, but despite throwing a huge amount of talent at it, the evening fails to live up to expectations as the opera itself is a bitter disappointment. Based on a novel by Dostoyevsky, Prokofiev’s garrulous tale spews forth relentlessly and is underpinned by a score that is instantly forgettable, overblown and compared to the composer’s remaining output, bland in the extreme.
After the resounding success that conductor Antonio Pappano and director Richard Jones enjoyed with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the prospect of them collaborating together on another Russian opera was probably too great to resist, so when it was announced that Jones would stage Prokofiev’s The Gambler, an opera about folks who like a flutter on the roulette tables, expectations ran high. However Prokofiev’s opera is a different can of worms to Shostakovich’s; Lady Macbeth is a masterpiece, The Gambler, alas, is not. It’s very rare to come away from an evening at the opera house without a single bar of music having lodged in the memory, but this is what happened on this occasion there are more tunes to hum along to in The Minotaur, for heaven’s sake.
For the first two acts it was like listening to a film score, with the singers acting as mere ciphers. In many ways the music was there simply to provide a backdrop to what was happening on stage, and it has to be said there wasn’t much dramatically to get your teeth into either. One of the things that makes opera unique is the way in which the music delineates characters, drives the drama forward and ultimately takes the audience to another dimension that simply cannot be attained without the magical fusion of music and text. There was none of that here, so all the performers had an uphill struggle in order to win the audience’s attention, which they were only partly successful in achieving.
Things did improve after the interval but it was a case of too little too late, although there were far more operatic moments than in the first half, but ultimately I didn’t care for any of the characters, and when that happens you do rather think ‘So what was the point of that then?’ In Anthony Macdonald’s cleverly designed sets, which give an ingenious false sense of perspective, Jones unleashed one of his zaniest productions which did what it could to breathe life into the opera. All the characters were well delineated and his handling of the crowd scenes was as deft as ever. The scene in the casino in the last act was a stunning piece of stagecraft, so three cheers to Jones and his team in managing to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.
Musically it was impeccably prepared under Pappano, and the orchestra played superbly. The cast was as good as you could expect these days although Angela Denoke (Paulina) had the greatest difficulty in getting the English text across (the Royal Opera wisely decided to perform the work in David Pountney’s lucid translation). Roberto Saccà was full-voiced and thrilling as Alexei, John Tomlinson boomed effectively as the General and Mark Stone, Susan Bickley and Kurt Streit all made their mark within the huge cast. It’s definitely worth catching, if only for the production and the singers but the opera is one that I won’t be rushing to see again in a hurry.