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

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

Samuel Barber: Choral Music

This recording, made in the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music in June 2014, is the fourth disc in SOMM’s series of recordings with Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.

L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its latest production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) featuring Renée Fleming /Nicole Cabell as the widow Hanna Glawari and Thomas Hampson as Count Danilo Danilovich.

Kindred Spirits: Cecilia Bartoli and Rolando Villazón at the Concertgebouw

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has been a regular favourite at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam since 1996. Her verastile concerts are always carefully constructed and delivered with irrepressible energy and artistic commitment.

Cav/Pag at Royal Opera

When Italian director Damiano Michieletto visited Covent Garden in June this year, he spiced Rossini’s Guillaume Tell with a graphic and, many felt, gratuitous rape scene that caused outrage and protest.

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):