The Royal Opera House may be a long-established institution but even so it can still mount decades-old works that have not yet graced its stage. One such is Prokofiev’s The Gambler, based closely on Dostoevsky’s novella, and first performed in 1929 (not in St Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre as intended, but at La Monnaie, Brussels, in a French translation, and more than a decade on since Prokofiev completed the work). Although by no means unknown (David Pountney staged The Gambler for English National Opera in 1983), for many opera-goers it is an unfamiliar piece. However, should anybody need an incentive to attend one of the six performances that is exactly what is being provided – and twice over at that for the Royal Opera is reducing its top-price seats to £50.00 and this production finds director Richard Jones reunited with Antonio Pappano, music director of the house. Anyone who saw their previous collaborations (Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the double-bill of comedies L’Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, by Ravel and Puccini respectively), all are pictured here, will know exactly why this combination is such an attraction.
Richard Jones is apprehensive about doing interviews. Despite his self-doubt in this respect what emerges is an extremely interesting insight into a lesser-known opera and also into Jones’s working methods. Much of our time together is spent discussing these areas, but I begin by asking about what shaped him into becoming not just a director but one equally at home with opera, with musicals (these range from Sondheim’s Into the Woods to the recent revival of Annie Get Your Gun) and with straight theatre (working at Young Vic, Old Vic and the National Theatre in plays that extend from Molière to Pirandello).
What emerges first of all is a picture of Richard as a young man playing the piano. He could be heard at many a London restaurant including Langan’s Brasserie and The Last Resort in the Fulham Road as well as playing in a lot of shows. But this was not significant in itself save for distinguishing him from his family who were not particularly musical. “It was a way of supporting myself before I was taken seriously as a director, and it was also a good way of getting into the theatre because if you could play an instrument that was something you could offer rather than just coming along and saying that you would like to direct.”
Richard had been born in London in 1953 but it was in Scotland that he gained important experience through a bursary that took him to Scottish Opera and to the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. “I was very interested in opera and regarded Scottish Opera as the more important of the two, but I never thought that I’d get to direct as much opera as I have. Nevertheless I always wanted to direct both theatre and opera and I’ve now got better at planning it. It’s tricky though because they work so differently: a piece of theatre can come up at a few months’ notice but operas tend to involve much more long-term planning. All you can do is put aside some time in the year with the idea of perhaps doing a play then. I did two pieces of theatre just before coming here for The Gambler and my concern is less with the balance as such than with doing pieces that I will enjoy directing: if it’s stimulating and nourishing that’s what counts.”
There’s a summary of Richard’s career available on the Internet that is slightly misleading in that it fails to note fully the amount of new opera that he has done. It’s an area that he likes (“the challenge of new work is welcome and it’s pleasing to be free of the scrutiny of those who with other pieces think that they know how something should go and press those opinions”). As for productions that have made a mark in the development of his career, he picks out Ostrovsky’s comedy Too Clever By Half which he staged at the Old Vic in 1988, Prokofiev’s The Love For Three Oranges which he has done with several companies and The Ring cycle presented at Covent Garden in the mid-nineties. “The Ring probably brought me more to the public notice than anything else though I’m not sure that it brought me acclaim. However, it was very satisfying to do despite an unhappy relationship with the conductor: I did enjoy directing it, especially the third part [Siegfried].”
I comment on the diversity of Jones’s work but he does not distinguish between the various branches of it: “I think that every director has a process and mine tends to be similar for plays as well as for operas. Nor do I think that comedy brings up distinct challenges for a director: it’s the artists who have more to cope with in comedies because they require so much more of a company feel and the rhythm is so important. But if you ask me whether or not my productions as a whole carry any particular hallmark, [that is] something for you to say, not me.”
Turning to The Gambler, I ask about the decision, so unexpected at Covent Garden, to perform the work not in Russian but in English. “The Gambler is excessively wordy and a lot of the text is incredibly fast, almost at the speed of speech. Indeed it’s possibly the closest to a play that you can come to in the opera-house and that was why we made a joint decision to do it in English.” The fact that there will also be surtitles encourages Richard to comment on his feelings about them. “I am not a fan of surtitles, no. I think that if you are reading all the time it becomes a literary experience and that consequently it robs opera of a certain kind of depth. That’s because reading surtitles becomes a preoccupation for the audience when they need to be free to take in the piece on a more instinctive and emotional level. Personally I don’t want to see subtitles when I see Wagner or something like Trovatore: as for comedies the thud of reading a comic-line takes away the appreciation of the artist’s way of negotiating it and hitting that moment as they choose. But I’ve seen a lot of opera so perhaps it’s unjust for me to say that. In any event The Gambler is an exceptional case because it’s a loud piece and however much you work on the diction I’m not sure that the voices would get it across the orchestra. My fear, however, is that people will read a lot and just because there is so much text will not look enough. That could also be why it’s not a mainstay of the repertory although there’s a lot to be said for putting it on: it’s got some fantastic music and the second half is particularly strong.”
Richard supports this by mentioning the impact that the work had on him when he saw that production of it in the 1980s by David Pountney. “It’s his translation that we are using and I remember really enjoying his production and the piece itself. However, I didn’t anticipate that it would one day come along for me to do: you could say that I’d parked it! Interestingly John Tomlinson who played the General is taking the same role for us having never done it since – and, of course, he wasn’t really the right age for it before.”
In approaching The Gambler, does it help Richard to have previously directed not only The Love for Three Oranges but also The Fiery Angel? “Each work of Prokofiev’s is very different but this piece and The Love for Three Oranges remind me of his standing as a ballet composer in that there’s stuff in the music that seems to suggest what he wants as regards the patterns of people on the stage. One finds too so much colour in his music and he’s great when he’s got a demonic subject as happens here and in those other two operas. But The Gambler is very close to the novella and Prokofiev must have known the characters and the book inside out. I read it a lot and certainly kept it firmly in mind as well as reading Prokofiev’s diaries. More recently I looked at stuff around The Gambler itself and read David Nice’s book. Also I became aware of certain correspondences between the main female character, Polina, and women portrayed in some of the major Dostoevsky novels. I do lots of drawings early on before consulting with the set designer and at that stage you can be quite free and draw certain events and encounters within the story. My process is both literary and visual and I do whole books of drawings. That way something begins to take shape or should do.”
Back in 2000 Richard shared with Antony McDonald an award as designer for their work in Germany on Un ballo in maschera. Antony has designed the sets for The Gambler. “During the period of devising it we would meet daily. Usually it takes between six weeks and two months before a sketch model is arrived at. Next comes the costume designer, and then the lighting designer will review what they have done and will work with me around the text. As for the casting, directors in this house get much more input and participation now. In Haitink’s day that wasn’t the case but Tony Pappano likes to consult with the directors.”
Publicity for this Covent Garden production refers to the work’s intensity but also to its social satire and there’s even mention of it containing grotesque humour. The fact that this story of obsessive gambling set in 1866 takes place in an imaginary spa resort in Europe known as Roulettenberg could be seen as a pointer to the tone, but I ask Richard to clarify his view of what is being attempted here and grotesque humour is not what he sees in it. “I think that it’s a social satire in which elements concerned with obsession and mania come increasingly to the forefront of the story. As the characters succumb to gambling-fever they behave duplicitously and fraudulently and the main character, Alexei, becomes so bitten by that particular vampire that he finds that he can’t take up a meaningful relationship with the most important female character, Polina. She spots this and leaves. In this situation you find people perilously confusing success at the gaming tables with making something of life. But there are also lightly comic-figures such as the pretentious General who isn’t really a general but a civil servant and who despite being Russian adopts impeccable French manners and wants to be thought of as French. There’s also this gold-digger called Blanche who finds wealth sexually-attractive and the grandmother who loses all her money. Then there is the sinister Marquis who could be self-invented.” In view of the satirical aspects, will audiences be laughing as at an outright comedy? “No. I don’t imagine that this will be a laugh riot.”
There are people who regard Richard’s inventiveness as being wilfully perverse on occasion and this troubles him because he doesn’t understand it. “I know that I’m frequently told that I do unusual things with texts but I would never-ever set out with any intent of perversity. I like literature, I like plays, I like operas and I like meditating on them. It’s fantastic when what you have imagined in your head is up there onstage with lights and costumes, but the act of imagination has to have integrity. If I were to find a new approach that could be seen as a different way of looking at something which was also recognised as being not perverse but as a fresh way of revealing what was always there then I would be thrilled.”
In discussing Richard’s methods with him, I find myself thinking of a film-maker who, like Richard, made drawings as part of his preparation: Alfred Hitchcock. But I soon become aware of a major difference between them for Hitchcock was not only reputed to be disdainful of actors but also claimed that for him the exciting part of his work was the visualising of a film in detail in drawings so that the shooting of it became a chore by comparison. I close with words from Richard that are in marked contrast to that: “The exciting moment comes when the artists become creative. In the first rehearsals they all have to sit around a table for three or four days so they can read the text and become grounded in the back stories of their characters. I’m quite pedantic about not allowing them to leave the table until they know all about the person they are to become, what that person wants and what they’re doing. They probably get very impatient with me, but it really comes from Stanislavski and out of that process they will be able to play with what I’ve tried to give them. There was a moment when Angela Denoke playing Polina had the line ‘I’m bored and I want some light entertainment’ and she danced it. Now I would never have thought of that, but it was so right and it grew out of that rehearsing process. As for John Tomlinson he may begin slowly but you can trust him to find such moments. It feels like something that I’ve instigated but it’s independent of my ideas and it comes from the creativity of the artist. I find that a tonic and lively – and as a director it’s something to live for.”
- Six performances at 7.30 p.m. from Thursday 11 February to Saturday 27 February 2010 (final performance at 7 p.m.)
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera