A winning new production of Serge Prokofiev's early opera, The Gambler won generous applause from both audience and critics. Opening for six performances from February 11 to 27, it featured a star-filled cast, an engaging new production and music director Antonio Pappano and his well-honed opera orchestra to play the biting but always masterful music.
This first mature opera of Prokofiev was scheduled for its first performance in 1917 at Saint Petersburg's Marinski Theater but the Russian Revolution, running concurrently, caused the project to be shelved. Appearances in major houses have been rare since then.
Prokofiev set Dostoevsky's short novel of the same name to music, and his opera uses music to carefully tell the story of characters consumed by a gambling addiction. There is a good deal of dialogue and the unusual but smart choice here was to utilize an English translation by David Pountney. The story, set in the fictional spa town of Roulettenbourg, tells of gambling addiction, class conflict and unrequited love as the tutor Alexey - Dostoevsky's alter ego - is hopelessly in love with Pauline, stepdaughter to the master.
The Royal Opera hedged their bets by giving the audience top drawer talent. No less that soprano Angela Denoke sings Pauline. Her final scene with Alexey showed off the serious and talented artist she is. Young tenor Roberto Sacca had much impact as the troubled and passionate Alexey and John Tomlinson was magnificent as The General - a role he sung at the English National Opera when the opera was first seen in London in 1983. The French Marquis was the noted tenor Kurt Streit in fine form and Susan Bickley almost stole the show with her astonishing strong Babulenka, the old grandmother. Jurgita Adamonyte was the saucy mistress of the General and Mark Stone excelled as the mysterious wealthy Englishman, Mr. Astley. The several supporting members of the cast were without a weak link and the fine chorus was strong in the second act casino gambling scene.
The star stage director Richard Jones, with the help of his set designer, Antony McDonald, created a hotel and casino was a playful perspective and the actors were given careful roles to play. The balance between serious and burlesque was probably less serious that Dostoevsky would have liked but helped to keep the story - told almost verbatim - rolling along well. The Royal Opera also offered the tickets to this rare opera at half price and they all quickly disappeared. When a opera house restores such rarely performed opera with such consumate skill and effort, it is a tribute to their artistic vision and a compliment to their audience's willingness to explore.
* * * * * * * *
All photos by Clive Barda.