copyright © 2007
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
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
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
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.