The word “Casino” spelled out in glittering lights. Prokofiev’s The Gambler has arrived at the Royal Opera House, London. In Roulettenberg, all life is concentrated on one singleminded object: Greed. Prokofiev’s music doesn’t waffle. Gambling is a compulsive mania. Prokofiev’s notes pound out at a manic pace, figures whirring and swirling like a perpetual motion machine. A roulette wheel in sound.
Orchestras are often compared to powerful machines: here, Antonio Pappano turned the Royal Opera House orchestra into a precision engine, all its elements whirring together, making Prokofiev’s score come alive vividly. Pappano gets such animation from his players that the mad ride feels exhilarating. In the last Act, Alexei’s at the table, but all the gamblers are willing him on. It’s a form of mass hysteria. Prokofiev’s music reaches fever pitch, as though caught up in an adrenalin rush. Yet Pappano keeps a tight rein. For all the wildness, discipline prevails, for the machine, like Fate, is relentless.
This tension between the “machine” of compulsion and the “freedom” of nature runs throughout the opera. The hotel runs like clockwork, an unnatural cocoon where everything’s provided. Yet there is an outside world. Dostoyevsky deliberately uses “international” characters, Frenchmen, Germans, Russians, Englishmen, to remind us that the spa is a vacuum that pulls people in from other lives.
Why, one wonders, does Paulina need Alexei to prove his love for her by provoking the Baron and Baroness? They aren’t gamblers, but what do they represent? In Dostoyevsky, they’re in a park, “civilized nature” in a mountain resort. In Richard Jones’s production, the park becomes a zoo. Dramatically this is wonderful, because it makes the distinction clear. Wild animals are on display – but which are the ones in cages? A seal does tricks for the tourists (congratulations to the dancer in the seal suit!) Nature is “tamed”, forced into meaningless routines.
Richard Jones’s hyperbright, comic book idiom is ideally suited to The Gambler because it highlights the anti-naturalism of the spa. The lighting is extreme because it’s artificial. The Jazz Age staging is stylized, dissociated from tradition. Significantly the most “sympathetic” characters, Alexei, Pauline and Babulenka (Roberto Saccà, Angela Denoke and Susan Bickley) wear costumes which hint at Russian folk embroidery (Nicky Gillibrand). Perhaps it means something that Babulenka decides to return to Moscow and the “villages” she owns, and take Paulina with her. Alexei, too, is a "wild card", the unpredictable cog in the machine. Maybe he represents a primeval Russian "type"that can't be suppressed ? Unlike the vapid cosmopolitan patrons of the spa.
Saccà and Denoke are vivacious, but Susan Bickley’s Babulenka is a delightful surprise. The General has gambled on her dying, but she defeats the odds. Bickley’s voice is fluid and vigorous. This Babulenka really has been rejuvenated by her flutter at the tables, so when she’s crushed, it feels even more tragic.
The message of the opera is pretty clear. No-one beats the odds, no-one escapes fate. Yet the characters are not pawns. The General (John Tomlinson) and the Marquis (Kurt Streit) emerge as real people, not stereotypes, so their demolition is moving. Tomlinson’s voice is ageing, but he handles the trickier vocal passages with aplomb. His acting is superb, giving the role levels that could easily be missed. Everyone knows Blanche (Jurgita Adamonyte) is a gold digger but Tomlinson makes us realize that the General’s deluded because he’s a needy person within. As his aunt says, bluntly, “You’re no General”.
Kurt Streit’s Marquis is an even more enigmatic figure. Beneath that calculating coolness, he too is driven by forces he can’t handle. Streit’s voice expresses personality, expanding the role beyond the text, which in itself reveals little. Streit shows why the Marquis keeps lapsing into French. It’s not “because” he’s French, but because he’s archly trying to distance himself from others. Pauline saw something worthwhile in him, but he can’t do emotional involvement and needs to slip away.
The subsidiary roles in this opera are important, because they extend the drama, like ripples in a pond. Mark Stone’s Mr Astley is a mystery figure: perhaps the next Marquis? John Easterlin’s Prince Nilsky will be dumped by Blanche when his money runs out. The vignettes are wonderfully achieved – proof that the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme pays dividends. I loved the witty counterpoint of the Tall Englishman (Lukas Jakobski) and the Fat Englishman (David Woloszko).
Interestingly, Jones organizes the crowd scenes in long, narrow lines, reiterating the idea that life in a casino is shallow. But full marks for Prokofiev. He builds many elements into his score, replicating the cosmopolitan nature of Dostoyevsky’s story. A man near me heard Gershwin. The music certainly has the sharp timing and hyperbole of film. In the dissonances and especially in the dramatic scene where Alexei’s on a winning streak, I thought of Berg. When you think about when the Gambler was written, it starts to make sense. At the time, Prokofiev, caught up in the world of Stravinsky and modernism was experimenting with new forms of expression. Later, the Soviets weren't so sympathetic. Not all opera has to be Verdi. Thirty years later Stravinsky's Rakes Progress is an experiemnt in stylized structures
The key to The Gambler, I think, is to remember that it's a study of obsessive, irrational behaviour. Hence the nature of the music and sparse, didactic form. The opera is almost more like a play in its pace and texture. The plot is not difficult to follow. It's much clearer than the novel. It might be an idea to watch one of the movies based on Dostoyevsky. I've only seen the Karel Reisz film from 1974 but it left a huge impression on me.