Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Poliuto, Glyndebourne

Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne could well become one of of the great Glyndebourne classics.

Carmen by ENO

Dystopic vision of Carmen, brought to life by vibrantly gripping performances

Pacific Opera Project Presents Ariadne auf Naxos

Pacific Opera Project, a small Los Angeles company, presented a production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Ebell Club with an excellent group of young singers at the beginning of what should be good careers.

Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash

Six people, dressed in ordinary clothing, sitting in a row at desks adorned only with microphones and glasses of water, and talking for ninety minutes: is it opera?

Rising Stars in Concert, Lyric Opera of Chicago

The spring concert of Rising Stars in Concert, sponsored by and featuring current members of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, showcased a number of talents that will no doubt continue to grace the stages of the world’s operatic theaters.

The Singers Sparkle in New York Opera Exchange’s Carmen

New York Opera Exchange’s production of Carmen from May 8th to 10th highlighted that which opera devotees have been saying for years: Opera, far from being dead, is vibrant and evolving.

‘Where’er You Walk’: Handel’s Favourite Tenor

I have sometimes lamented the preference of Ian Page’s Classical Opera for concert performances and recordings over staged productions, albeit that their renditions of eighteenth-century operas and vocal works are unfailingly stylish, illuminating and supported by worthy research.

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s 1999 film starring Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, dramatized the fraught working relationship of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; it won four Oscar nominations (garnering two Academy Awards, for costume and make-up) and is a wonderful exploration of the creative process of bringing a theatrical work to life.

Manitoba Opera: Turandot

There’s little doubt that Puccini’s Turandot is a flawed, illogical fairytale. Yet it continues to resonate today with its undying “love shall conquer all” ethos, where even the most heinous crimes may be forgiven by that which makes the world go ‘round.

Mariachi Opera El Pasado Nunca se Termina Comes to San Diego

On April 25, 2015, San Diego Opera presented it’s second Mariachi opera: El Pasado Nunca se Termina (The Past is Never Finished) by Jose “Pepe” Martinez, Leonard Foglia and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

Antonio Pappano: Royal Opera House Orchestral Concerts

Ambition achieved! Antonio Pappano brought the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House out of the pit and onto the stage, the centre of attention in their own right.

Bedřich Smetana: Dalibor, Barbican Hall

Jiří Bělohlávek’s annual Czech opera series at the Barbican, London, with the BBC SO continued with Bedřich Smetana’s Dalibor.

Orlando Explores Art Without Boundaries

R.B. Schlather’s production of Handel’s Orlando asks the enigmatic question: Where do the boundaries of performance art begin, and where do they end?

The Virtues of Things

A good number of recent shorter operas, particularly those performed in this country, made a stronger impression with their libretti than their scores.

Król Roger, Royal Opera

It has taken almost 89 years for Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger to reach the stage of Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera Celebrates 50 Years of Great Singing

San Diego Opera, the company that General Manager Ian Campbell had scheduled for demolition, proved that it is alive and singing as beautifully as ever. Its 2015 season was cut back slightly and management has become a bit leaner, but the company celebrated its fiftieth season in fine style with a concert that included many of the greatest arias ever written.

Hercules vs Vampires: Film Becomes Opera!

In the early sixties, Italian film director Mario Bava was making pictures with male body builders whose well oiled physiques appeared spectacular on the screen.

Green: Mélodies françaises sur des poèmes de Verlaine

Philippe Jaroussky lends poetry and poise to the sounds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France

J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.

Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Roberto Saccà as Alexey, Susan Bickley as Babulenka and Angela Denoke as Paulina [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of Royal Opera House]
09 Mar 2010

The Gambler, London

The global credit crunch, with its painful exposure of the moral and literal bankruptcy of our own age, provides the perfect backdrop for this new production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, the first ever staging of this opera at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Sergey Prokofiev: The Gambler

Roberto Saccà: Alexey; Angela Denoke ; Paulina; John Tomlinson: The General; Jurgita Adamonyte: Blanche; Kurt Streit: The Marquis; Susan Bickley: Babulenka; Mark Stone: Mr Astley. Director: Richard Jones. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Thursday 11th February, 2010.

Above: Roberto Saccà as Alexey, Susan Bickley as Babulenka and Angela Denoke as Paulina

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of Royal Opera House

 

As our hapless politicians stake the security of future generations, and self-absorbed bankers obsessively take their chances with the populace’s finances, it sometimes seems that the world stability hangs not on the spin-doctors’ platitudes but on the spin of the Dow Jones’ roulette wheel.

Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel The Gambler provided Prokofiev with the inspiration for this tale of economic and emotional ruin. The drama takes place in an hotel in a fictional German spa resort, Roulettenburg — reminiscent of the Baden-Baden where Dostoevsky recklessly propelled himself into bankruptcy. As the twinkling signs adorning the front curtain unambiguously declare, the Casino is the place to be, and gambling the only occupation to distract the assorted European residents from their ennui and snobbery.

Gambler_ROH_05.pngKurt Streit as the Marquis and John Tomlinson as the General

Alexey, tutor to the widowed General’s children, is passionately in love with the latter’s step-daughter, Paulina. Unaware that she is indebted to the Marquis, Alexey has tried to ease her despair, and win her heart, by gambling with the proceeds from her sold jewellery, but he has lost all the money. Meanwhile, the impoverished General waits impatiently for his elderly aunt, Babulenka, to die, so that he can inherit her fortune, marry his courtesan mistress, Blanche, and relieve himself of his own obligations to the Marquis. Unfortunately, Babulenka proves rather more robust than her relations had hoped or anticipated; she arrives at the spa town to recuperate, and is herself enticed into the gamblers’ den. As she frits away the family’s inheritance, Blanche turns her attentions to more lucrative suitors, while the General collapses in despair.

Alexey finds Paulina in his hotel room; she is being pursued by the Marquis for her outstanding debts, and begs him to find the money to save her from selling herself on the marriage-market. In the casino, Alexey has an amazing streak of lucky and breaks the bank. Yet, when her offers Paulina the money she angrily declines; her love cannot be bought. By this stage, Alexey is so consumed with the ecstasy of his winning streak that he forgoes all thoughts of human love for the thrill of the roulette wheel.

Determining to imitate the naturalist idiom with which Mussorgsky experimented in Boris Godunov, Prokofiev produced his own libretto, here rendered in David Poutney’s translation which retains the unrhymed dialogue of the original. Essentially the text is a stream of continuous recitative — although on this occasion the diction was so poor that one couldn’t actually hear a word! — and this relentless melodic uniformity is one of the problems which any production must overcome. For, while there is much power in Prokofiev’s score it is not immediately touching or involving and the listener can feel rather distanced from the onstage action, at least in the opening two acts.

Gambler_ROH_06.pngJohn Tomlinson as the General and Jurgita Adamonyte as Blanche

Richard Jones does his best to draw us into the characters’ dilemmas and traumas. He imaginatively updates the action to the 1930s, and the décor is stylishly and imaginatively designed by Antony McDonald. A sharp perspective ensnares the audience’s eye, mimicking the irresistible force of the addict’s compulsion and the undeniable gravitational pull of the roulette ball’s progress. This is a perfect visual match for Prokofiev’s unyielding score, its driving ostinati conveying the inescapable urges and cravings of the gamblers who stake all on the roulette ball’s destiny. In this regard, the composer saves the most chillingly evocative instrumentation for Act 3, in the Casino, where the clientele and croupiers of Jones’ casino scuttle about like demented pinballs, their lurid costumes flashing and spinning, before taking their places in rigid rows like the resting columns of a one-armed bandit.

Jones’ garish, anti-naturalistic staging highlights the extremism of Dostoevsky’s vision. In Act 1 the leisured guests stroll through the zoological gardens; barred windows denote the cages, but who is looking in and who out? It’s a grotesque menagerie, for morally misshapen disreputables — symbolised by a dancing seal (heroically performed by the costumed dancer), whose ghastly writhing betokens the bestial urges to which all succumb. On a projection screen, a tiger paces back and forth impatiently, trapped in its small cage, hinting at the cruelty and viciousness which lurks beneath the aristocratic veneer of the hotel lounge.

Gambler_ROH_01.pngRoberto Saccà as Alexey and Angela Denoke as Paulina

The dramatic temperature is at boiling even before the opera begins, and there is little light and shade in the opening acts. There is a large ensemble cast, to which Jones added even more characters — seen, for example, running feverishly across the stage during the impassioned overture, and returning during the final scene to intrude on Alexey’s closing number (and somewhat diminishing the poignancy of his rejection by Paulina). The revolving doors of the hotel fling a continual stream of guests into the lounge, and the atmosphere is tense and frenetic. However, Prokofiev’s score does possess moments of lyricism, most noticeably for Alexey, Paulina and Babulenka who, with a nod in the direction of the literary original, are the most sympathetic characters. Dressed like Russian peasants (costumes by Nicky Gillibrand), they intimate a nostalgia for a Russia unsullied by European vices — indeed, having lost all her wealth, Babulenka returns to her Russian village — and exhibit real ‘human’ emotions, conjured by brief melodic fragments which float above the grinding dissonances of the obsessively busy score.

Tenor Roberto Saccà, as Alexey, was in powerful voice, and certainly had the necessary stamina for this demanding part. He injected drama and emotion into the role at every opportunity, finding a variety of colourings to reflect his transformation from guileless lover to heartless addict. In the role of Paulina, Angela Denoke displayed a strong, well-centred tone, appropriately suggesting wilfulness, confidence and, at the close, honest self-recognition.

Gambler_ROH_04.pngScene from The Gambler

Making a ‘Lady Bracknell-esque’ entrance, Susan Bickley was a vigorous, life-loving Babulenka. She was both strident and tender, as the drama demanded; and the contrast between her initial headstrong independence and subsequent disappointment was touching and full of pathos. Strong, sustained characterisation was also a praiseworthy feature of baritone Mark Stone’s mysterious Mr Astley and the Marquis of tenor Kurt Streit. Most impressive of all, John Tomlinson’s General was a superlative presentation of a defeat and delusion; his act 3 mad scene was a tour de force.

In this ‘recitative opera’ it is in fact the score which tells the story. The ROH orchestra were once more on tremendous form, as Pappano relished the pounding rhythms, driving tempi and the thick brassy timbre, expertly exercising control in the pit as the characters on stage spun into moral chaos.

By the final act, the mercenary financiers — the so-called ‘gentlemen’ — have gambled with Fate and lost both their money and their souls. Alexey has thrown away his innocence and exchanged Paulina’s love for a banker’s safe. This is not just a social satire but a real human tragedy. All are in the grip of vices which consume them. You can’t beat the odds or evade your destiny, and we ignore this disturbing lesson at our own peril.

Claire Seymour

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):