The Gambler

Review of Prokofiev's The Gambler, Royal Opera House

The stages of opera houses are no strangers to madness. Indeed, from Orlando to Wozzeck and Lucia to Tom Rakewell, delusion and insanity of one kind or another have come to be staples of operatic psychology. Few works, though, can claim to be as thoroughly estranged from reason as Prokofiev’s early adaptation of The Gambler, a novella by Dostoevsky about the capricious charms of the roulette table and the hollowed-out society that gathers around it. This is not simply a question of individual characters going mad – although that does happen – but of the world in which they operate being depicted as, in itself, radically unhinged. More importantly, the main device in this representation – beyond an adaptation of the story from which Prokofiev has stripped away all humanizing features – is musical. Employing selfconsciously astringent expressionist idioms, Prokofiev’s score is structured as a series of violent headlong descents into the dramatic present which leave the listener gasping for breath, groping for some minimal vantage point to use as a neutral position for reference. Only one is offered, coming in the final act. It depicts with shrill woodwind and piano, quite brilliantly, the metallic rattle and skip of the ball on the slowing wheel, and then the tortuous silence that divides the moment it settles and the number being called.

That the single moment of musical rest offered by Prokofiev is also the opera’s dramatic climax is the stroke of genius that holds the work together. The audience’s world becomes complicit in the madness on stage, the audience hankering after peace with an immodest urgency, like a gambling addict whose sole access to clarity of vision and emotional equilibrium is the brief moment when events are put completely beyond his control. This is the gambling addict’s pathological focus – something that renders the rest of the world colourless, devoid of sympathy – as art.

Prokofiev had completed no fewer than six operas before 1915, when his proposal for The Gambler was finally accepted by Albert Coates as part of his effort to rejuvenate the Maryinsky Theatre. Although the Revolution prevented the production from going ahead (the premiere was in Brussels in 1929), the score was ready in 1917 after an intense period of work during which the composer’s mother, hearing the brutal and frenzied sounds emerging from behind her son’s closed door, began to worry seriously about his mental and musical health. But Prokofiev knew exactly what he was doing: “I have done everything possible”, he explained at the time, “not to burden the singers with unnecessary conventions, in order to afford them freedom in the dramatic realization of their parts. I am aiming only for simplicity”. As promised, the score comes unhampered by arias and set pieces, presenting over two hours of unadulterated recitative. If this makes the music difficult to interpret, the quicksilver pacing and two-dimensional characterizations make it very difficult to stage. Yet the Royal Opera’s new staging is one of several successful recent British productions of The Gambler, although the work has not been heard in London since David Pountney’s staging for English National Opera in 1983. (The Royal Opera have also used Pountney’s translation.)

One reason for this recent surge of interest is obvious: the society pilloried so mercilessly by Prokofiev is, in many respects, no worse than our own. The madness endemic in Dostoevsky’s Roulettenberg (based on Wiesbaden in Germany) is institutionalized, just as individuals today are consumed by an economic practice in which the relation between value, worth and work has been stretched beyond breaking point. If such a factor were enough to recommend the project to Antonio Pappano and his director, Richard Jones, it cannot by itself guarantee the work’s dramatic success. But Pappano’s investment in the score is total – excitingly immediate and yet sufficiently clear-sighted to maximize each of Prokofiev’s minute orchestral effect. And just because it is a difficult score to listen to attentively (Prokofiev’s early conception of opera was that the music should be transparent in respect of the action and “not stand out as an independent element”), it doesn’t mean that The Gambler shouldn’t be great fun to play – which it clearly was.

The interwar-period sets are equally virtuosic. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are fashioned in extraordinary detail, combining sophisticated shades of ErtĂ© with contemporary grotesques. The result is a riot of sense and reference for the eye quite equal to Prokofiev’s music. Antony McDonald’s artdeco interiors have foreshortened interiors so that the monumental aspects of the hotel, botanic garden and gaming rooms are offset by deceitful distortions of perspective. Jones’s direction, too, acutely emphasizes the skin-deep psychology of Prokofiev’s characters, carried through with some finely judged acting from Susan Bickley as Babulenka and John Tomlinson as the General. (Tomlinson was also Christian Badea and Pountney’s General.) As for the singing: according to Prokofiev, you shouldn’t really notice it. But the Italian tenor Roberto SaccĂ  and German soprano Angela Denoke (who is scheduled to appear as Salome later this season) both make the best of the lyrical scraps left for them by the composer.

One touch that deserves mention is Jones’s addition of an unscripted (silent) acting role for a sunken-eyed caretaker. Attention rests on him for one passing moment, as Alexey mocks the Germans (yes, he goose-steps) for their absurd notion that modest wealth and comfort should be earned by hard work. The janitor haunts the stage almost for the entire duration of the opera, working when he can, watching when he can’t. Only once does he come into contact with the other world, when the General flings him against a wall as he marches back to the casino; the caretaker crumples to the floor before returning to his sweeping. The actor who plays him is, appropriately, uncredited.

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