The young Prokofiev was obsessed with what he imagined to be a “new” type of opera, and The Gambler was its prototype. It was to dispense with 19th-century conventions and mirror the patterns of speech.
The obsession was unhealthy because, unlike Janácek, Prokofiev did not have the maturity to realise his dream.
He had ideas, energy and a formidable compositional technique, but failed to marshal them into a convincing whole. And so his early adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella became one of opera’s problem children.
It’s a sign of Grange Park Opera’s ambition that, to celebrate its 10th season, it should take a punt on The Gambler, last seen in the UK at English National Opera a quarter of a century ago.
And it’s a sign of the open-mindedness of Grange Park’s first-night audience that everyone listened attentively to a performance that, although sung in English, would have been so much easier to follow with surtitles. Prokofiev’s plot is bitty and insubstantial: it needs all the help it can get.
The harsh reality is that, without a first-rate cast and visionary staging, The Gambler is a loser. The music is skittish and strident, with mere snatches of the lyricism-with-edge of which Prokofiev was to become a master – although André de Ridder and the Orchestra of St John’s make an impressively pacy job of it, especially in the Act Four interludes.
The problem with David Fielding’s production – his first failure after a decade of brilliance – is that he takes the opera at face value. His belle époque setting, elaborated in a parade of eyecatching period costumes, emphasises everything that is insignificant about the plot, and leaves its (far too many) characters looking hopelessly genteel. He never gets to grips with the gambling motif as an engine of drama and psychology, and it’s only in the finale – ironically, Prokofiev’s most conventional scene – that Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Alexei and Katherine Rohrer’s Pauline come alive.
Carol Rowlands’s Babulenka makes the most of her Act Four scena, and Andrew Shore turns in one of his typically robust and intelligent performances as the General. But the stakes are high in Prokofiev’s early experiment, and this is one gamble that the ever-enterprising Grange Park Opera has failed to pull off.
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