by Polly Hope
Royal Opera House London
Always good to get something new in the Operatic Golden Box, e.g. The Royal Opera House.pouse I've never seen THE GAMBLER before so a real treat. Leastways that's what I hoped for. Prokofiev has always been a favourite of mine, so even more expectation of wonders to come. A packed house and I think almost the entire audience was on its first time trip to this work
So disappoint you all first or last? Best get the bad stuff dealt with because there is lots of very good stuff. So here goes, this is not a very good opera. It really does not hang together and the story is very difficult to follow. Prokofiev has taken one of Dostoevsky's stories and adapted it to his needs; alas his needs don't seem to have much relevance to anyone else's needs. Confusion is possibly a little strong, bit muddled it certainly is. Little wonder though written in 1917 the work didn't get a production in Russian in Russia until 1974! There were earlier productions; the first was in French in Brussels in 1929.
The story, if you can follow it, is about a family grabbing at their inheritance from an old Aunt. She is supposed to be dying but she shows up at the casino, learns how to play roulette and loses her all. Except that is "my house in Moscow and my villages ''
Now the music, a pretty stunning break through in 1917, Puccini and his pretty tunes was still around when Prokofiev was trying so hard to break the mould of canary fanciers and bring fresh ideas into the dusty operatic world. But nobody wanted anything new; the old red velvet suited them fine. The music isn't easy, even today it sounds almost new. Not perhaps Prokofiev's best and none of his adorable melodies of works such as Cinderella. However Pappano as musical director does a great job, the melodies are there if you know how to listen for them. Pappano ismagic, don'tthinkI've everheard a bad performance from him. He extracts the subtlest details from florid scores, which would otherwise just be noise. He has done an excellent job with THE GAMBLER all praise to him.
So that's the bad stuff taken care of.
Everything else is pure magic. The singing is superb throughout. The work is sung in English, [no one admits to the translation,] but few of the singers are. No matter, mostly what they declaimed could be heard. The Alexey of Roberto Sacca was pretty blooming marvellous and John Tomlinson can always be relied on. Here he plays the General, most desperate of all the family to get his hands on the dosh. Thisis an operawith many, many singing rolesand nearly no chorus work. More than thirty names sing individual parts, all of them good. Your usual opera has four or five main protagonists so this huge cast alone makes for an operatic break through.
The sets of Anthony McDonald are magnificent. The workopens in the zoo and the zoo theme is there throughout, even the designs on the hotel walls when we get tothat bit are animal inspired. Stunning use of space, we are always looking down corridors and the perspective is very false, butit works so well, a row of cages, or a row of hotel bedroom doors, one way or another we are all trapped.
Special mention of the performing seal in Act 1; I think it was a real one for I just couldn't see how he or she had got into such a perfect realistic seal skin.
The costumes are perfect, witty and explanatory with exactly the right touch of fantasy. Nicky Gillibrand, well done. Not easy tomake such distinctive clothes and not to have them looking like fancy dress but seemingly what the rich might have worn in a posh German watering hole in the 1920s.
Finally the direction, all hail Richard Jones, a director who canalways be relied on but here has got it even more right. His choreography for crowds is extraordinary, as precise as a row of dancing girls, yet looking like what Germans would be doing if they were hurrying somewhere, an endless stream of people running across the stage one after the other, their anxiety flowing across the foot lights. The gambling rooms in a grand casino with all eyes glued to the croupier are used and lit to make the excitement ever more edgy.Here Jones has made his singers into dancers, all heads turn precisely, all hands stretch exactly, not an easy job. Every detail is taken care of, no standing about just watching; the entire cast is involved throughout. I loved it all.
Perhaps a bit of a failed evening, Prokofiev's fault entirely, but how essential it is that our poshest opera house does produce such challenges. Much more exciting to have near misses than endless Traviatas.
Polly Hope London