Wednesday 24 February 2010

The comedy (and tragedy) of class

The Gambler, Royal Opera House, London

Sergey Prokofiev, adapted from the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky / Director Richard Jones

Perhaps ironically for an opera about the thrill of the roulette table, this production seems determined to keep the audience off the casino floor for as long as possible.

Beneath a huge but low-grade illuminated ‘Casino’ sign, a red-haired woman paces anxiously in an anonymous coat. Finally a small door opens and Alexei emerges. He’s done as she said and pawned the jewellery, but all the money is lost.  This is not going to be an opera that glamorises gambling. Dostoyevsky, who wrote the book on which it’s based, was a compulsive gambler for much of his life.

But it’s about much more than the urge to stake everything on chance. Act one begins properly in the zoo, where Alexei’s employer the General (Alexei’s a tutor, little more than a servant) tells him off for gambling. Alexei answers ironically, ‘Don’t try to win your money, earn it by honest toil and endeavour!’

But it’s quickly clear that the General is also living beyond his means, borrowing money at exorbitant rates from the Marquis while waiting for the aged Babulenka to die and leave him her fortune. Polina, the General’s ward - the redhead who was so desperate for Alexei’s winnings - has no money of her own either.

Prokofiev finished this opera in 1917, when a certain revolution interrupted plans to produce it at Moscow’s Mariinsky Theatre. And the tensions of class, of who has money or must be seen to have money, are central. Owning nothing, Alexey has no chance of success with Polina, for whom he nurses a hopeless passion, on just his tutor’s wages. Add to this his impulsive nature, and it’s no wonder he likes a flutter.

Prokofiev took his own risks with the musical style of the piece. There are no romantic tunes here to whistle on the way home. The whole opera is a dense pudding of prose set to conversational rhythms – great for understanding the drama, but demanding for the audience. Without big musical cues, and with no arias to break it up, the staging and performance really have to give this piece structure, and under Richard Jones’s direction it does carry the audience along.

The production is rich in the comedy (and tragedy) of class, but it throws in a more modern take on human frailty. At the Zoo, with its false-perspective rows of cages, the characters lean on a rail and look out to the audience, as if we too were animals in a pen. And this animal imagery carries through the whole piece. Even in the hotel corridor, paintings of monkeys fencing and dining tell us clearly, ‘You’re not so different as you think from mere beasts’.

Act two moves nearer to the casino, but only as far as the hotel lounge, where the general’s assurances to the Marquis that his Babulenka is as good as dead already are interrupted – by the arrival of Babulenka herself, feeling much better and keen to do some gambling. Her ungrateful relatives are not pleased with this news, and Alexey mischievously offers to help her enjoy her wealth by staking it at roulette.

Before long, reports reach the General – and his mistress, Blanche, to whom he’s been waiting to propose – that Babulenka has lost everything. Blanche hears the bad news from Prince Nilsky, and in a few moments he is showing her into his room. The general is furious, ranting that in Russia, Babulenka would be arrested – ‘Judges would restrain her!’ Presumably the very reason all of them are in the fictional German town of Roulettenburg instead.

In her room Babulenka, smaller, greyer, sadder, hits the vodka. Across the corridor Polina reads a letter from the Marquis, who has abandoned her to her debts. ‘Ungrateful, heartless,’ sings the ruined General.

But Alexei stakes whatever he has left on saving Polina. And so, finally, we get to see him in action. Unlike the other settings, the casino floor is packed with a chorus of excited gamblers and poised croupiers. But as the wheel spins, everything freezes except the wheel itself, the focus entirely on Alexei himself, ‘Oh my God,’ he sings, ‘This is madness, I’ve gambled so much money on a single throw’.

But he wins. He wins so much they close that table and he moves on to the next. And then he breaks the bank, and they close the casino for the night. The chorus, who have had very little to do until now, perform an exuberant song and dance number proclaiming him as ‘wild and savage’.

Back to his tiny hotel room under the roof, where the hotel staff wheel in a row of safes. So now it’s just Alexei and Polina and enough money to bale her out of all her troubles. A happy ending, you might think?


But no, this is no fairytale. Polina cannot, after all, cope with feeling bought by Alexei. Sobbing over a stormy orchestra, she runs out and leaves him there. As he goes after her, gamblers wearing animal masks wander in to examine the safes.

Which is a pity, because there is plenty in The Gambler without having to tack on the idea that gamblers are animals, ruled by animal impulses and caged by society, or their own addiction, or whatever it is.

There are very human motivations for the gambling in the opera. Alexei starts with unrequited love and a social situation that leaves him few options. Babulenka starts with gambling for (whisper it) sheer fun and then loses her fortune almost wilfully to spite her callous relatives. Are these stories not more interesting and more believable than broad-brush comparisons with zoo animals?

To complete my research into the psychology of gambling I went on to the Ritz casino and proceeded to lose the price of an opera ticket at roulette. Frankly, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as watching it happen on the Opera House stage, but I was unaware of any animal instincts at work. Unless you count an immature urge to defy the moralising that surrounds recreational risk-taking in the 21st century.

Remaining performances on Thursday 25 and Saturday 27 February 2010


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