Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

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):