Get Fyodor Dostoevsky, not renowned for his insouciance, to write a piece of Gogolesque whimsy and have Sergei Prokofiev, without a staggeringly successful record of operatic output, to compose a score that is second rate by his standards and you have The Gambler, now receiving its Royal Opera premiere.
Richard Jones would seem to be the perfect director for the work and he does his best with it. He worked wonders with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Covent Garden but there the material was much more giving. Here, take his characteristic brightness, cartoon characters, ingenious foreshortened sets and throw in a performing seal (literally) and things still don’t spark off.
We know that Prokofiev was capable of descriptive music but here so much of the time what’s coming from the pit bears little relation to the action, such as it is. The first half plods horribly. Things pick up a bit in the second, culminating in the busyness of the roulette scene of Act 4, where the chorus comes into its own and the director can let rip. It’s almost enough to rescue the evening but not quite.
The problem seems to lie somewhere between the source material and what the composer did with it. Dostoevsky served as the basis for one great early twentieth century opera, in The House of the Dead, but composers have generally and advisedly steered clear. While the Janacek is predictably grim, with The Gambler the author seemed to be wandering into foreign territory, much more comfortably inhabited by Nikolai Gogol, and he simply doesn’t pull it off.
For all the welcome experimentation Prokofiev was doing with his score, things don’t sit easily and the mix of dragging text (made no easier by being sung here in English) and tuneless dirge, with just occasional hints of the magnificence the composer was capable of, does not make for an engaging evening.
Jones just doesn’t have the chance to show us his usual brilliance. Everything’s carried off with flare by a potentially brilliant cast but it all flies off in wrong directions like roulette balls failing to find their slot in the wheel.
I’d always choose an unknown opera, whatever the quality of writing, over yet another revival of one of the 100 or so works of the standard repertoire, but this one seems an awful waste of the talents of Roberto Saccà, Angela Denoke, John Tomlinson, Kurt Streit, Mark Stone, Susan Bickley, Antonio Pappano and Richard Jones, to name a few. It couldn’t have been given a better opportunity to shine but I can’t see it sticking around beyond this run.