The Gambler, Royal Opera House, London
Andris Nelsons/CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Richard Jones's lavish new production of Prokofiev can't disguise the opera's lack of subtlety

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)

Next Week:

Commedia dell'arte in an American diner? Anna Picard sees ENO continue its bel canto binge with The Elixir of Love, directed by Jonathan Miller

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering