Not, perhaps, since another English country opera ”house”, Garsington, mounted the first British production of Richard Strauss’s golden “cheerful mythology” Die Liebe der Danae, has so much been achieved only to be seen by so few. The same director-designer, David Fielding, has for some years now been lending similar style to Grange Park, a secluded neoclassical temple deep in Hampshire countryside recently graced by a state-of-the-art small theatre; but the revised version of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, the most complex offering of Grange Park’s tenth anniversary season and running for six performances only, was bound to be a special challenge.
The critics were, for the most part, as unkind as they had been to Glyndebourne’s razor-sharp Betrothal in a Monastery the previous year, and again without either much understanding for the young Prokofiev’s speech-melodic aims or, even more unfairly, much sympathy for the focus and dedication of the artists, production team and orchestra involved. It might have made a difference to be witnessing the second performance; in the interval the outstanding conductor, Anton de Ridder, admitted that without anything like Glyndebourne preparation-time, the Orchestra of St John’s were now beginning to
yield the results on which he had been working so hard.
For those of us who have listened to the score long and hard, the frequently-repeated assertion that there’s not much melodic substance in The Gambler never holds water, especially given an interpretation so flexibly attuned to the interplay between lyricism, brutality and brittleness as de Ridder’s. Yet even as drama, the first two acts are hard work for an audience which simply needs to work out the complicated relationships between the Russians mired in ”Roulettenberg” and their manipulators. I have never seen, or heard, them make better sense than they did at Grange Park. Using a slightly adapted and, for the most part, excellently projected version of David Pountney’s English translation, Fielding clarified the one-to-ones with an intimacy that had not been possible in Pountney’s ENO production (the last major staging of the opera in the UK). Grange Park regular Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’ heroic and vocally tireless Alexei was compelling from the start. He may not at first have seemed to be a likely candidate for the febrile activity of the gambling tables; but then it is not Prokofiev’s purpose to set him up as one in the opera’s early stages (and Fielding’s surreal drop-cloth showed how a
garden-maze in our hero’s brain eventually gives way to the obsessive flashing of the roulette-wheel).
Everyone rose to the later acts’ many turns of the screw. Carol Rowlands’ Babulenka was at first merely dour, never amusingly redoubtable; but after Babulenka’s capricious whittling-away of the family fortunes, she did underline the opera’s first notes of pathos touchingly. It would be hard to find better casting for the role of the foolish, unfortunate General than that great singing actor Andrew Shore; the scene of his breakdown went beyond the tragic-comic to the horrifying. The tour de force of the last act not only presented the climactic roulette scene with exemplary clarity but also brought mezzo Katherine Rohrer’s previously rather restrained Pauline up to Lloyd Roberts’ level in sheer dramatic intensity. That many sceptical Grange Park regulars came away reeling perhaps says more for the world-class achievement of the show than a critical fraternity which too often makes up its mind at half-time, and – inevitably – before work at this level of difficulty has had time to settle. What a shame that circumstances preclude a revival.
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