In July 1867, shortly after The Gambler was published, Dostoevsky took his young wife to the spa resort of Baden-Baden. While the author plunged into the "voluptuous panic" of the casino, pawning Anna's jewellery for capital, she carefully recorded their dwindling funds in her diary: 166 Louis, 40, 20, none. Though the hero of his story is compelled to play roulette by an indebted femme fatale, Dostoevsky himself needed no encouragement.
If Dostoevsky's novella is problematic, so too is Prokofiev's opera. First completed in 1917, then revised in 1929, with a tickering, snickering sound-portrait of the roulette wheel, this brittle adaptation lacks the wit of the original. Who or what is the subject of scorn and mockery? The mythical "beau joueur"? The pretensions of Russians who ape the manners of French aristocrats? The heel-clicking formality of the Germans? Sloth? Concupiscence? Pride? David Pountney's tart English translation points to each of these in turn. But with every character a caricature – wimp, buffoon, whore or bitch – and every voice made stupid or shrill by debt or lust, it is difficult to connect or care. Prokofiev's declamatory style may have overturned what he saw as outmoded operatic conventions, but the casualties of his revolution were nuance and subtlety.
The young composer had scant interest in roulette and even less understanding of economic hardship. Indeed, the curious thing about The Gambler is how little gambling there is in it – unless you count the gamble the Royal Opera House took in staging it. In betting terminology, Richard Jones's lavish production is a martingale. From the performing seal of Act I (a dancer) to the excitable clutch of hobble-skirted, sharp-suited gamblers in Act IV, the omnipresent, melancholy cleaner and the silent brace of Otto Dix lesbians, no expense has been spared.
Where David Fielding's Grange Park production was dominated by a roulette wheel, Antony McDonald's Roulettenburg is a series of corridors with ceilings that recall the Moscow underground, zoological gardens with elephant trunks and monkey tails rudely protruding from cages, a lobby lined with one-armed bandits, an attic with a dirty mattress for the loveless love-scene.
Nicky Gillibrand's costume designs slyly indicate the malleable identities of the visitors, with a flash of half-hidden Russian embroidery here, an off-key bowler hat there. Everyone is in debt to someone and hiding something else, moving with studied carelessness. While the General (John Tomlinson) longs to be equal to the oily Marquis (Kurt Streit), Alexei (Roberto Sacca) constantly proclaims his otherness: a Tatar, a man "with no place, no money, no future", the prototype for any number of disenchanted fictional rebels. Polina (Angela Denoke) remains a cipher – contemptuous, craven and capricious – while Mark Stone's Mr Astley wears the ingratiating smile of a bible-salesman. All squeeze and sequins, Blanche (Jurgita Adamonyte) has blowsy charm to offset her avarice but Babulenka (Susan Bickley) is the only candid voice, a dotty grandmother with a retinue of expressionless serfs.
Antonio Pappano's conducting is scrupulously refined. The strings smart in agitation and slide in deliquescence. They are the dominant voice, though the General has his own Peter and the Wolf-ish band of bassoons, low brass and double-bass, and Alexei's existential provocations are coloured with snide clarinets. Despite the hyperactivity of the strings and the breathlessness of Prokofiev's word-setting – at times delivered almost as fast as speech – the text is remarkably clear. Sacca's English is fluent and forward, and only Denoke fails to adapt to the language ("I hot and detost you!"). I can't imagine we will hear a cleaner realisation of the score, though having heard it played this well, it only confirms my opinion that it is a dislikeable work, dramaturgically unfocused, cocky, cruel.
Andris Nelsons is enjoying a happier honeymoon in Birmingham than poor Anna Dostoevskya did in Baden-Baden. Last Saturday saw a packed audience at Symphony Hall for a programme of works by two generations of Russian composers. Anatoly Liadov's Kikimora is a twinkling trifle of a fairy tale with yearning, Rusalka-esque strings and a plaintive "cat's lullaby" for the cor anglais (Christine Pendrill). Written only a year later, after others ducked Diaghilev's commission, Stravinsky's The Firebird comes from a different aesthetic: boldly theatrical and physical in its vacillation between threat and seduction, with taut off-stage trumpets and suavely shaped solo passages from oboist Rainer Gibbons, leader Laurence Jackson, principal violist Christopher Yates and principal cellist Ulrich Heinen.
Scintillation is relatively easy for an orchestra as confident and well-blended as the CBSO and a gifted, energetic young conductor. More impressive was the sense of chronic sickness and creeping despair in the veiled opening of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto and the expertly metred, gradual intensifying of tone. Soloist Baiba Skride and the orchestra moved as one from the grotesque brilliance of the Scherzo to the pallid sorrow of the Passacaglia. Both this and the Stravinsky feature on the CBSO's tour to Germany next month, and it will be interesting to hear how Nelsons' interpretation develops between now and 25 March, when The Firebird returns to Symphony Hall.
'The Gambler': to 27 Feb (020-7304 4000)
Commedia dell'arte in an American diner? Anna Picard sees ENO continue its bel canto binge with The Elixir of Love, directed by Jonathan MillerReuse content