The Gambler, Royal Opera, February 2010

Royal Opera photo: Clive Barda

This is a cold story of intrigue, and obsessive gambling at the roulette tables. In the last two productions I’ve seen, in Chicago and St. Petersburg, the stage has been darkly lit, in keeping with the coldness and scheming inherent in the story, but this production by Richard Jones, with set designs by Antony McDonald and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, is quite different. It is bright and colourful, starting with a scene in a zoo where well-dressed visitors look into the cages, which are presumably metaphors for the fact that the characters are trapped by their determination to acquire money or love that is cruelly taken away from them.

The story is based on a novel by Dostoevsky, and the main character is a young man named Alexey, tutor to the family of an impecunious general, who expects great things from his wealthy aunt Babulenka. Alexey is in love with the general’s ward Paulina, and gambles on her behalf. At first he loses badly but later he wins big-time, yet she has been having an affair with a marquis and coldly leaves him. In the meantime, Babulenka, who is supposed to be near death’s door, turns up unexpectedly at the gambling spa, and gaily gambles away all her money. The general goes crazy, and loses his demimonde lover Blanche.

John Tomlinson was superb as the general, Angela Denoke excellent as Paulina, and Susan Bickley gave a brilliant performance as Babulenka. Roberto Sacca was convincingly impetuous as Alexey, Kurt Streit cool and imposing as the marquis, and Jurgita Adamonyte suitably flashy and vapid as Blanche. The singers — and there is a huge cast — all did well, but the applause was muted. It’s not a popular opera and this production never quite brought it to life — we never really felt sympathy for any of the characters. Perhaps that was the idea, but I find it hard to drum up much enthusiasm for things that are very cold in very bright surroundings. The other two productions I have seen were more effective in their sombre tones and lack of the extraneous devices that we had here.

Antonio Pappano conducted Prokofiev’s music well, and as music director he presumably wanted to take on this project. I support the Royal Opera’s decision to put this on, but there are plenty more Russian operas worth doing that would be more exciting and satisfying — Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa for instance, or a revival of Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel. Let us hope they have plans for such things.

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