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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

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