Richard Jones's production of Prokofiev's The Gambler is the Royal Opera House's first ever. It's a strange opera - no melody, no arias, more like a movie soundtrack with singers. Desperately hard work as a recording for all but the most devoted Prokofiev fans, it really needs a busy, intensely theatrical presentation to bring it to life. The music seems to accompany the action rather than defining or illustrating it, so the words are absolutely crucial.
It was a smart decision to present the opera in English, and even smarter to add supertitles - not all the singers had perfect diction. Or beautiful voices, come to that, but then this isn't bel canto - it's more about getting an economically-worded story across. Antonio Pappano's unflashy and well-paced conducting supported this aim with a sensitive ear for volume.
Richard Jones updated the action from the mid nineteenth century to some time in the 1920's, but apart from that, took few directorial liberties. Cleverly designed, well rehearsed, brilliantly acted - it was as good as the opera needs and some might say better than it deserves. Taken as a whole, it was an entertaining couple of hours, but pulled apart, it would be hard to deny that the weakest contribution came from the composer.
The action takes place in the German town of Roulettenbourg, a sort of Teutonic Vegas. This giant flashing Casino sign drops between acts to hide the scene changes:
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The first act is set in a zoo. Trunks and tails slip out from between the bars from time to time to remind us. The set is brilliantly constructed to be shorter at the back, giving an impression of greater depth:
Alexey (Roberto Sacca) talks to Paulina's guardian and Alexey's employer the General (John Tomlinson), with the Marquis (Kurt Streit) behind. Paulina gave Alexey her money to gamble with, but he lost it all. Now he pretends it was his own. The sign on the podium indicates feeding time:
Feeding time has arrived. The man in the sea lion suit ('not in the score' - a Richard Jones addition) raised the biggest laugh of the night. Paulina has dared Alexey to prove his love by insulting a passing baroness - the ensuing fracas disrupts the feeding session:
At this point there was an interval, from which a noticeable number of the audience failed to return. For anyone who hadn't been concentrating 100% or didn't understand English perfectly, the first half may have been a trial. The last two acts are less bitty and more coherent, musically and dramatically, so were easier going.
See the animal pictures on the walls:
And then he goes crazy. A classic JT mad scene, which almost upstaged the sea lion:
He returns to the room with chests full of cash: