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Things That Have Interested Me

Russian Roulette

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
9 June 2007

Grange Park Opera opened its 10th season with Prokofiev's The Gambler. This is one of the Russian operas that Valery Gergiev has championed, and I knew it only through his recording, now alas deleted and available only at a price (£94 on Amazon). If you are interested in Russian opera, this is one you want to see: it is the young Prokofiev, writing before the revolution, and making his own adaptation of Dostoevsky's story.

The music is savage and nowhere cute (as later Prokofiev can be cute), but in a sequence depicting the rush of excitement experienced by the gambling addict on a mad, winning streak, it is all one would wish it to be. This is musical drama from the age of Meyerhold. It belongs in that great period of revolutionary, as opposed to Bolshevik, artistic endeavour, although it was not performed at the time of its composition. Its premiere was at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1929. Prokofiev never saw it on stage.

I've heard it said, and seen it written, that it is impossible to care for any of the characters in this piece. It no doubt shows an admirable side of the human spirit if the audience wishes to take home some of the characters and "care for" them at the end of the evening. But this is Dostoevsky we are dealing with, and his characters are utterly allergic to being cared for.

"I am a sick man," announces the speaker in Notes from the Underground. "I'm a spiteful man. I'm an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver. But I cannot make head or tail of my illness and I'm not absolutely certain which part of me is sick." This was Dostoevsky's characteristic invention - the thoroughly unpleasant voice that turns out to be thrillingly astute, the voice that tells us that, while reason may be a fine thing, it only satisfies man's rational capacities, whereas "desire is a manifestation of the whole of life, that is of the whole of human life, along with reason and all our head-scratching".

"I agree," says the same hero, "that twice two's four is a marvellous thing; but to give everything its due praise, twice two is five can also be a very nice little thing." Man has reason but may act against its dictates. A man "may deliberately, consciously desire something injurious, foolish, even extremely foolish ... in order to have the right to desire even something very foolish, and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is intelligent."

The liberty of the individual, in Beethoven, or the liberty of a people or country, in Verdi, was perceived as a beautiful thing, however much the achievement of it was bound up with suffering. But the exercise of liberty in Dostoevsky can be ugly, foolish, obsessive and self-destructive. The assertion of one's rights is not of itself noble.

Roulettenburg, the casino town in which the story is set, is a sordid place, peopled by desperate obsessives. The gambler of the title, Alexei, is not exceptional in his obsession (in the manner of the hero of Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades). He is one of the greedy crowd around the tables. What is exceptional in him is his aggressive perceptiveness: "Since I myself was thoroughly gripped by the desire to win I found all this covetousness, and all this mercenary grossness, if you like, somehow very convenient and familiar as I entered the hall. It is so pleasant when people do not stand on ceremony but behave openly and informally together. And why deceive oneself? It is the most futile and wasteful occupation!"

Alexei (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) is tutor to the children of a general (Andrew Shore) who, impoverished by his gambling, is waiting desperately for the death of a rich relative. But this fearsome old lady (Carol Rowlands), the figure referred to as the Grandmother, is no longer at death's door. To widespread consternation, she turns up in Roulettenburg and is drawn to the tables, where she very quickly loses most of her fortune - not everything, for as she tells us from her ruined state: "I have three villages and two homes." But there is a spectacular fall implicit in being down to your last three villages.

David Fielding was both director and designer at Grange Park. The design was full of ideas, the direction hampered by the decision to sing in English, and therefore without surtitles. So it was not always possible to appreciate Prokofiev's take on the original material, unless you had prepared well beforehand. Still, I admire Prokofiev as a musical dramatist, and if I am told the work is flawed - well, some things just are flawed.

A part of its purpose was to bring the spoken language closer to musical performance, so that it is a drama of dialogue without set pieces. There is a Russian film of The Gambler (a truncated version of the score) in which the parts are mimed by actors. This would seem to miss Prokofiev's purpose altogether, which (in this opera) was close to that of Janacek - the other great adapter of Dostoevsky for the lyric stage.

Grange Park opera house is an astonishing place to visit during its summer season. It's near Winchester, deep in an old estate, among fields stiff with corn, and with a view on to an overgrown ornamental lake. The opera house has been constructed inside an ornamental building on the estate. It is done with brilliant panache, balancing a sense of noble dilapidation with witty postmodern style.

Because it is all privately funded and sponsored, it - well, the short-hand is that if you dread Glyndebourne, you may not feel at ease in Grange Park. But there it is, a part of our artistic "mixed economy" - and an important part, too. The Orchestra of St John was under the baton of André de Ridder. The singers are excellent, the experience of dining in ruined splendour in the middle of this raucous obstreperous work ... bizarre. In a more plebeian setting, it would have had kinder reviews.

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