Friday, 12 February 2010

The Gambler at the Royal Opera

No, still no idea what it was all about. I promised myself I'd let the narrative of Prokofiev's The Gambler percolate through to my brain during the night. It hasn't. That's not to say I wasn't entertained last night at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This is clearly indicative of the company operating at a new high. The opera isn't great but at no stage was it possible to say that there wasn't a clear commitment to the work from any constituent part of its production.

Richard Jones productions have a tendency to almost consume the piece which they are meant to be supporting. Yet for all that this production is instantly recognisable as Jones' work - pungent colour, humour, set-within-set, action at the extreme front of the stage - I never had the feeling that the work was being co-opted as a vehicle. No, not even when the first act ends with the non-scored introduction of a seal, whose antics are of a part with Prokofiev's explosive wind-up to that act.

Flamboyantly designed in the satirical tradition of George Grosz, the look is colourful but dark, slightly frenetic and tilting towards Weimar decadence. Indeed, in this production the piece bears more than a passing resemblance to Berg's Lulu (Berg began writing his opera at the same time as this was getting a first performance delayed by the Russian Revolution). Jones has Paulina throwing nuts at the audience in the Zoo of the first act, just as the acrobat invites the audience into the self-referent 'menagerie' of Lulu. The bestial allegory is maintained and developed throughout The Gambler with pictures, projections and masks of animals, the final tableau not too far a step from the hellish irruption of chaos at the end of The Shining...

... and, incidentally, Kubrick's horror masterpiece is also recalled in the hotel corridors of the terrific, perspective-forcing tapered set

Unfortunately the opera squanders the opportunities for isolating and investigating the individual narratives that would draw the audience in. Rather, the focus is on creating entertaining caricatures in which Prokofiev's mercurial but rudderless score finds its effectiveness. The protagonists are uninteresting and dull - especially in Jones' production whose elan naturally caters for Guignol - although Roberto SaccĂ  sings Alexey wonderfully over the large orchestra. John Tomlinson as the General is the pick of the subsiduary characters, charging about the stage and eventually being led off in an entirely appropriate straight-jacket. Jurgita Adamonyte is a nice bit of casting as his mistress, busty and bothersome, masking some lovely singing. The piece threatens to take on some focus when the General's aunt Babulenka arrives, not least as Susan Bickley occupies the stage with great command and a crisp English diction that even Tomlinson had been grasping at.

Really though, the evening is all about the Act 4 set-piece in which Alexey wins at the roulette tables. Jones has cleverly built the scene up by setting previous scenes outside the casino. The spectacle inside the gambling hall is no let-down, with the entire company thusfar involved in stylised, cyclic choreography - betting, hoping, winning/losing etc. - punctuated by the spinning of the wheel, lit up like a disco ball in a front corner. (photo below from

The whole thing has the same frenzy as the Jungfrau shares sequence, again from Lulu. Here the subordinate cast come into their own: Hubert Francis' panicked croupier, Lukas Jakobski's droll Tall Englishman and Elisabeth Meister's Pale Lady, throwing herself and her voice about the stage in the spirit of Jones' screwball madness (all former or current Jette Parker Young Artists, these. It's good to see the Royal Opera following through on its commitment to the scheme, not just paying it PR appeasing lip-service).

For all the fun the opera finishes with pessimism, although its exact meaning - or even nature - is obfuscated like the rest of the opera. What I took away from the evening was a nebulous sense of Prokofiev's orchestral virtuosity (Pappano's supreme pit band packing a luxury punch) but a rather more negative appraisal of his ability to convert Dostoyevsky's neurotic novella into effective drama. It's a wonderful showcase for the homogenised commitment and vision of the company but one feels that they could have picked a better work to put on.

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