Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Royal Opera House stages Prokofiev's The Gambler, or Good God, Antonio, Why???

I am filing this production under Opera, great mysteries of. Somebody in the Royal Opera House production department must have thought this was a good idea. Perhaps the idea of a satire on gambling seemed topical. Perhaps Pappano had seen it done somewhere and was desperate to conduct it? Whoever came up with the idea ought to have paid more attention to the piece itself. This is an evening of fairly continuous tedium. In fact, after Acts One and Two I was hard put trying to remember another opera which had musically so completely failed to grab me.

The libretto is based on Dostoevsky's novella The Gambler, and the first problem arises from the adaptation. Basically this is one of the worst librettos I've ever run across (or possibly one of Dostoevsky's less successful pieces, as the programme notes claim that Prokofiev was remarkably faithful to the original text). Scenes are choppy, none of the characters really engaged my emotional interest, and at times libretto and staging seem to combine to see who can be stupider. Thus the mistress, Blanche (Jurgita Adamonyte) of the General (John Tomlinson) wanders up to the front of the stage and the following exchange proceeds:

“Where has the general gone?”
“I think he's still in his room.”
“Where has the general gone?”
“Are you deaf you stupid old bat?” - that at least is what the reply ought to have been.


I suspect that a big part of the problem is that this is early Prokofiev who had not yet obtained the mastery of combining words and music which is demonstrated in War and Peace which although obviously condensed nevertheless captures so much of the spirit of the book. These textual problems are further compounded by the decision to perform the work in English. Now, forgive me if I am mistaken, but I thought the whole point of the Royal Opera was to perform works in their original language. As regular readers will know I am a staunch supporter of English National Opera and the performance of any opera in English, and would not normally mind if the Royal Opera chose to follow this line. But really, if you are going to do so, you ought to explain why, and you ought to hire singers who can sing convincingly in English (Angela Denoke's Paulina is especially at fault here) and who have semi-decent diction. Almost every time I stopped following the surtitles it became impossible to understand a word that was being sung on stage. The Royal Opera ought to have higher standards than this.

The music is very odd. The first two acts are possibly the most tedious two acts of opera I have ever sat through in my life. None of the singing caught fire, Pappano's conducting was leaden, indeed the most exciting thing to happen was a large seal ambling on behind his keeper at the end of Act One (set for reasons not entirely clear in a zoological garden). It was however difficult to tell at that point whether the fault lay with performers or the work.

In Acts Three and Four responsibility became considerably clearer. Here the music is much more recognisably Prokofiev (or at least recognisable to your correspondent who thinks War and Peace one of the great operas). In the pit, however, Pappano continued as if nothing whatever had changed. There were wistful haunting melodies reminiscent of the waltz from War and Peace and jagged, biting sections. The orchestra should have been moving from lush romance to savage attack, but Pappano elicited a sound and level of engagement which remained essentially unchanged throughout. There was simply no drama coming out of the pit at all, even in the pivotal scene in the casino, and quite often (at least in the gods) it was almost incredible to think you had a full symphony orchestra in the pit.

The singing was serviceable but again nobody ever really caught fire, one reserves judgement on their responsibility for this given the lack of assistance they received from both score and conductor. However, there is one point which has really got to be made. John Tomlinson continues to be a frequent performer at the Royal Opera. I must make clear that I consider many of his past performances to be as good as I ever expect to hear. However, the truth ought to be faced. Tomlinson has sung so much heavy material that he can basically do nothing now except boom in a manner which increasingly becomes a strain to listen to. He was able to get away with this sound in Birtwistle's The Minotaur because a kind of anguished roar was what was required by the part, but it didn't work effectively in the recent Don Carlos revival and it certainly doesn't work here. Royal Opera audiences may continue to cheer wildly every time he appears (they certainly did so last night) but Tomlinson would do his considerable reputation much more good if he followed the example of other great singers and accepted that it is now time to retire.

The staging, by Richard Jones, is remarkably inoffensive – though there was an increasing amount of running around by the chorus which seemed a bit pointless. Overall though it is no more capable of rescuing this second rate work than anybody else involved.

Where's Runnicles therefore endorses the comments of several colleagues in the print media who have commented on the bizarre decision of the company to stage this second rate work when so much other Russian repertoire is neglected by it (The Love for Three Oranges, War and Peace and Khovanschina to name but three highly deserving cases). One can only ask, Good God, Antonio, Why?

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