Prokofiev, The Gambler, Royal Opera House, London

Like some kind of cosmic roulette wheel Prokofiev’s mighty orchestra starts whirring as the word “Casino” appears, writ large in dozens of flashing bulbs.

But Martin Scorsese this is not, nor Las Vegas, but the fictional German spa town of Roulettenbourg where, in Richard Jones’ febrile imagination, it is feeding time at the human zoo. This selection of grotesque, colourfully attired, humanoids are pretty much indistinguishable from the animals unseen inside their cages but for the odd flick of a tail or trunk. But in borrowing the metaphor from opening of Berg/ Wedekind’s Lulu Jones establishes his own menagerie in double quick time. There’s even a performing seal to point up the fatuousness and moral bankruptcy of it all.

Prokofiev’s relentless take on Dostoevsky’s novella is, in short, the perfect vehicle for Jones’ very particular skills. It’s a big, stylised, ensemble piece which turns almost exclusively on a series of compulsive ostinati and like the demon roulette wheel only stops spinning long enough to register the human folly which drives it. Indeed it would be hard to imagine a staging which more successfully replicates the perpetual motion and bold declamatory nature of the score. Jones animates his pathetic parade of caricatures – the cartoon of life - like a master puppeteer. The comings and goings at his Roulettenbourg Hotel – wittily designed by Antony McDonald (circa. 1920s, the time of the opera’s completion) – even suggest an element of schadenfreude as everyone is perpetually eavesdropping on each other’s misfortune. The hungry chorus of affirmation as Alexey appears to have beaten the casino and the system is sung to a kind of robotically synchronised Charleston, a fleeting moment of euphoria before the inevitable crash. Credit will be crunched but for now there’s something to sing and dance about.

This is in many ways a heartlessly sardonic and unforgiving score propelled by the grinding and chugging of Prokofiev’s characteristically machinistic rhythms and Antonio Pappano’s incisive direction. But just when you think that there will be no lyric leavening to ease the unremitting cynicism of it all Prokofiev throws in a moment unexpected pathos that is at once personal and at last real. The scene in which the hitherto indomitable figure of fun Babulenka - the rich aunt on whose inheritance everyone is greedily depending – laments her losses, seems to find Prokofiev, too, in mourning for something irretrievable. Russia, perhaps? It’s a beautiful scene and Susan Bickley took it splendidly.

In such an ensemble piece it’s almost invidious to single out individuals – but one should applaud John Tomlinson’s quivering windbag of a General and Kurt Streit’s suavely malevolent Marquis. Angela Denoke cut a suitably ambiguous figure as Polina, a women looking to be loved not bought, but it’s a hard voice to warm to and always strikes me more mezzo than soprano with its ample middle and lower registers but foreshortened top.

Roberto Sacca (Alexei) has all the top (and the stamina) you could want – and one day will make a splendid Herman in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades – but like Denoke the accented English (a good decision for so wordy a piece) was slightly intrusive. And I can’t help thinking that Jones missed a trick with the final pay-off. No matter – all bets were off long before it came.

theartsdesk.com

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements