Russian roulette

On Monday I attended a new production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler at the Royal Opera House, directed by Richard Jones. It’s the composer’s first full-length opera, based on an 1867 novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky’s Gambler is a slight work by his normal standards, enlivened by a rude old woman and some exciting scenes of gambling. These are the two things that lift Prokofiev’s opera above the level of banality. The old woman has the best music of the opera, its translucent beauty anticipating later works like Cinderella or the seventh symphony, or the magical orchestral opening of the third piano concerto. The roulette scene in the final act is the dramatic climax of the piece and finds Prokofiev, happily, in the driving, rhythmic mode of his most exciting music. Sadly, the rest of the opera contains little of the inspiration one is used to finding in Prokofiev’s music. It’s tempting to dismiss it as a valiant but unsuccessful early attempt on his part at writing an opera. He hadn’t composed anything on such a large scale before, and his greatest works were still ahead of him. All the same, that’s no excuse for one of the greatest melodists of the twentieth century not to bother to include any tunes.

Happily, the shortcomings of the music were redeemed by the production, which was excellent in all respects. Susan Bickley was imperious as the old woman, John Tomlinson a fine General, and Roberto Saccà an excellent Alexei. The orchestra under Antonio Pappano was reliably precise, and the set for the roulette scene particularly vibrant. It was an unorthodox decision to present the opera in an English translation by David Pountney, opera in translation being traditionally the province of ENO, but it mostly worked, if Angela Denoke did struggle with her vowels at times.

The ROH has lowered its prices for this production, selling the most expensive seats at £50. It’s a strange production to choose to do this for, if it wants to encourage loyalty from new patrons. Why not lower the prices for Cinderella (top price £97), The Cunning Little Vixen (£110) or Così fan tutte (£197) instead? Perhaps it was decided that this was the only way to get people to buy tickets for The Gambler. I’m quite prepared to be labelled lowbrow, but I’d happily swap the whole thing for the few minutes of casino action from Bernstein’s Candide. There’s never been a better gambling song than “What’s the Use?”.

These are first impressions, though. Prokofiev expert David Nice, whose fascinating traversal of Romeo and Juliet for Radio 3’s Building a Library I listened to en route for London, has written this review, which gives cause for encouragement. Maybe I’ll come round to it in time.

I think some people would describe Prokofiev’s score for The Gambler as ugly, but if I failed to be captivated by the opera I don’t think that’s the reason. Ugliness in music, as a rule, I like. Judging solely by his musical legacy, Ravel was one of presumably many composers who felt similarly. The same goes for art and architecture. I rather like sink estates, for instance, at least from a distance – but then it’s easier to find such things romantic if they’re not a constant part of one’s life. The most mesmerising thing I saw on Monday was out of my train window as I was waiting to leave Cambridge. A dilapidated building near the station was being slowly demolished by diggers. There is a poetry in destruction, I thought, as the metal pincers dislodged bricks from the building’s walls and swept debris from its upper floors.



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