Observations: Casino morality at the opera

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The Independent Culture

Ill-fated is an understatement for the tangled performance-history of Prokofiev's opera based on Dostoyevsky's The Gambler. He composed it in 1917 as a piece of musical dynamite to galvanise the sclerotic St Petersburg Imperial Theatre, but the Bolshevik revolution did that job rather too effectively, by closing the theatre entirely. A post-revolution production scheduled for 1929 hit a political brick wall, with Dostoyevsky's books relegated to the samizdat list, and with the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians declaring its avant-garde music socially harmful. When Vsevolod Meyerhold, its great directorial champion, was shot in the Thirties purges, its prospects looked hopeless. And when it finally got its Russian premiere in 1974 – 20 years after Prokofiev's death – it was still seen as dangerously subversive. Not until Valery Gergiev conducted a performance at the Mariinsky for Prokofiev's centenary in 1991 was it purged of its seditious overtones.

Today the music no longer shocks, but the message is as topical as ever: set among the gaming tables in a casino, it follows its hero's descent, via addiction, into madness. The new production at Covent Garden has the maverick director-designer pairing of Richard Jones and Antony McDonald, and an Expressionist wildness, with the addicted characters gradually coming to resemble the animals they gawk at in the casino's zoo. Baritone John Tomlinson plays the general who stakes his all on marriage to the daughter of a dowager, but the dowager blows his prospective fortune at the tables. "I'm carried off in a straitjacket to the madhouse," he says, "but I'm innocent, and there's no malice in me. This is a moral tale."

'The Gambler' to 27 February (roh.org)