The Rake’s Progress

Igor Stravinsky, credit Wikipedia

The Rake’s Progress

The Rake’s Progress, from Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Glyndebourne, Wednesday 27th October 2021, reviewed by David Truslove

In this latest revival of Stravinsky’s only full-length opera most of the cast members were not even born when the now celebrated John Cox/David Hockney collaboration was unveiled at Glyndebourne in 1975. Many revivals later, the 2010 run prompted Richard Morrison of The Times to observe that the production is ‘now so old that it probably qualifies for a blue plaque’. It’s certainly the oldest of any surviving UK opera production, and Hockney’s set and designs (replacing those by the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster) have toured the world. An outstanding achievement yes, but is there a hint in Morrisons’ quip of this staging becoming a tourist attraction? In his 2010 review, he was more impressed with the production’s ‘fabulous designs’ than he was with the performance.

Inspired by Hogarth’s 18th century engravings, there’s no denying the genius of Hockney’s cross-hatched patterns which still hold the eye whether in picture book trees, striped wigs or even a stuffed auk. The animation of drawings and designs artfully mirrors the restlessness of Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to neo-classicism, their restricted palette nicely balanced by the score’s primary colours. More vitally, the fabrics, whether canvas or cloth, capture the spirit of 18th century pastiche that is at the very heart of Stravinsky’s work, itself both an emotional pendulum and a patchwork of musical sources shoplifting the late operas of Mozart. For those over-long pauses between scenes there’s much to enjoy too in the ‘schoolboy’ scribbles decorating the backcloth.

But one must not forget the imaginative libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman whose addition of Faustian devilry in Nick Shadow and bearded exotica in Baba the Turk adds much spice to the Rake’s “progress” from blissful ignorance to Bedlam. Yet the characters are composite figures, virtually line drawings, in need of some fleshing out. As ever, Glyndebourne touring productions encourage younger talent, with several singers here from the company’s Jerwood Young Artists Scheme who are just beginning to make their mark. The performance I attended consistently captivated the eye and mostly charmed the ear, but I came away unmoved even after the tragic denouement.

That said, several of the singers grabbed my attention, chief amongst which were Frederick Jones as the eponymous Rake. He charts the wastrel’s transformation from callow youth to fop with a well-judged consideration for the “twin tyrants” of appetite and conscience. Vocally he projects Mozartian ardour and ringing high notes, at his most touching when ruminating about love or beseeching the sweet natured Anne Truelove (Nardus Williams) to return home when she comes to London. Her journey from despair to determination in two stylised arias at the close of Act 1 is musically convincing if somewhat unyielding at times. But it is not until her pleas outside Tom’s London residence where she reached heart-melting form. The scene is almost stolen by Rosie Aldridge’s comically timed Baba the Turk, in lustrous voice when declaring her return to the life of the stage. The cavernous tones of Sam Carl bring plenty of heft to his pantomime Nick Shadow, but apart from the graveyard scene, he amuses more than chills the blood. Cameo roles are well formed with Fiona Kimm as Mother Goose, Stephen Richardson as a benign Father Truelove and Daniel Norman’s characterful Sellem brings the junk-filled auction vividly to life.

A little more earthiness from the chorus might have summoned Hogarth’s roaring boys and whores, yet while not roistering in the brothel scene they sounded suitably robust as auction bidders and elegiac as madmen in their boxed-in asylum. Conductor Kerem Hasan, a protégé of the late Bernard Haitink, makes an efficient Glyndebourne tour debut, coaxing varying degrees of precision from the touring orchestra to illuminate Stravinsky’s chugging rhythms and spiky outlines. Overall, these mixed, youthful performances are still outclassed by Hockney’s designs. Definitely time for that blue plaque!

The Rake is also now on tour to Milton Keynes, Norwich and Liverpool 

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