Wednesday, June 06, 2007


"Where's your favourite opera venue?' an acquaintaince asked last Monday. Looking out over rolling Hampshire fields and countryside not far from Winchester I said I would settle for Grange Park Opera which we were attending. Truly beautiful, with a partly renovated Palladian
style house, pillars and all, in the foreground, two magnificent cedars and, a touch that would have delighted Salvador Dali, a red telephone box all by itself in a fold of the fields. And a recently built small opera house where every summer a season takes place, the whole enterprise fired, and I do mean fired, by an attractive conductor turned administrator called Wasfi Kani.

If I tell you that the programme book is priced at £15 you can get an idea of how much dinner and your ticket would set you back. Heigh ho! when financial rape seems inevitable, open your wallet and give way to luxurious serendipity, especially since the roster of operas this season includes Falstaff, Bellini's take on the Romeo & Juliet story, Handel's Semele and The Magic Flute.

But before these delights there was some medicine to take, a Russian pill to swallow in the form of The Gambler, a setting of Dostoevsky's story based on his own unhappy experiences at the wheel of misfortune. An elderly aunt comes to the townof Roulettenburg to investigate Alexei's addiction to gambling. She gets badly bitten by the bug and loses thousands. In the fourth act Alexei wins thousands but loses his girl.

This was the first completed opera of Prkfv (Prokofiev's own abbreviation) and it reveals him as still wet behind the operatic ears, misjudging the pacing and continuity of music for the stage. In a word, the score is fidgety: ideas overlap, fresh ideas occur every few seconds, rhythms, vocal lines and orchestration change constantly, likewise moods; in his desire to avoid operatic conventions, Prkfv employs the sort of kaledioscopic movement that Verdi created so effectively in quite his last opera Falstaff. However the Italian composer was by then quite dry behind the ears. The Russian began The Gambler is his early twenties but was thirty-seven by the time he had revised it for its premiere in Brussels in 1929. It was slated then as it usually has been (Edinburgh 1962 and Wexford) but it remains a challenge that some opera houses seem unable to resist. David Fielding's Grange production and designs are apt and smooth running. Prkfv himself concocted the text, retaining (apparently) much of the original dialogue. The words come plenty and fast, too quick for surtitles and it was not easy to hear David Pountney's translation. Only, as usual, Andrew Shore's words, singing the part of an old general, could be easily heard, and it was not easy to sort out who was who in the large cast. The central figure,
Alexei, the gambler, was convincingly played by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (looking slightly like another Alexei, Sayle), a tenor. Carol Rowlands made the most of the cameo part of the visiting aunt, but Katherine Rohrer's voice, as the girl, was not at all ingratiating. Andre de Ridder, formerly assistant to Mark Elder in Manchester, coped tidily with the busy score with the Orchestra of St.John's.

There are moments when one can discern the future genius but on the whole this is a lack-lustre, lack-lyricism, lack-charm, lack-too much score, a gamble that fails to hit the jackpot.

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