Prokofiev’s Gambler at Mannheim

My only previous encounter with Prokofiev’s opera The Gambler, based on Dostoyevsky – a performance by the Dutch Opera Zuid – had disappointed. I found it difficult to engage with the fate of a group of unattractive people whose preoccupation (symbolised by the gambling vice) was wealth, sex and social status, and Prokofiev’s astringent, unlyrical score had not helped. In short, I felt the work to be boring. It is impossible to be bored by the current revival at Mannheim. Tilman Knabe, whose previous work I had disliked intensely, makes a theatrical extravaganza of the piece. It becomes not just a satirical view of a decadent society but a protest against the distortion of human values and nature. Of course what Herr Knabe does is “over the top” with crocodiles invading the stage, snapping at the protagonists, and political placards filling the auditorium. But other aspects of the staging are theatrically powerful and aesthetically pleasing. The smoky, spacious hall of the Kurhaus (designer Johann Jörge) creates a highly atmospheric background. On occasions, the action is astutely frozen, with mauve streaks of lighting picking out a key character or interaction.

In the pit Alois Seidlmeier proved that the music – angular, short phrases, sharp rhythms – was effective in underscoring the unfeeling world depicted on the stage. Among an excellent cast, tenor Zurab Zurabishvili stood out for his bravura performance as Alexei: energetic, intense and thrillingly sung. Ludmila Stepneva as Polina remained appropriately cool but her soaring soprano hinted at passion beneath. And Edna Prochnik made much of her relatively brief appearance as the Babushka gambling away the roubles on which others had set their hopes.

Altogether an exhilarating evening of musical theatre.