Review: The Rake's Progress

Image credit: Sapphire Armitage

This CUOS production of Stravinsky’s 1951 opera is ambitious and inventive in the extreme, and wonderfully combines intelligence and visual pleasure. Director William Ashford centred the production around the stylization inherent in opera as a form and in particular its intensification in this opera. Ashford cites the dramatist Vsevolod Meyerhold and applies his methods of absurdity and alienation. It’s an intriguing and revealing approach, and one particularly apt to this opera which is so aware of its status as a manufactured stage work, cannibalizing other operas from the eighteenth century. Various witty touches – one of the auction items being Hogarth’s engravings called ‘The Rake’s Progress’, the reappearance of certain items – contributed to making the production a real pleasure to watch. Dominic Edwards’ set and Alice Brightman and Agnes Cameron’s costume designs revealed a unity to the fragmented-seeming production, which highlighted its increasingly doom-laden dramatic impetus.

All of the principals sang strongly and acted well. Particularly outstanding was James Adams as a serpentine Nick Shadow, whose grotesqueness grew steadily more menacing. Although less of a dramatic presence than Adams, Michael Bell as Tom Rakewell sang with remarkably little strain and portrayed Tom’s callousness in the earlier acts particularly well. Olivia Brett as Anne Truelove revealed a sweet soprano, especially in her higher range, and sang touchingly. As Baba the Turk, Chloe Allison struggled slightly against the orchestra but managed the difficult writing well and made the character rather moving in her later scenes. Perhaps diction could have been more precise on all parts – it’s an excellent libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, and a shame not to hear as much of it as possible – but given the demands of the vocal writing the singers managed to put quite a lot of the text across.

This is a terrifically difficult score, and while the orchestra, under musical director Adam Hickox, largely managed well, there were persistent problems with intonation, ensemble and some scrappy playing (understandable in the strings because of the reduced orchestra, less so in the woodwind and brass). Hickox’s coordination between the orchestra pit and the stage was impressive, however. The chorus, under chorus master Henry Websdale, were a diverting and entertaining presence, revelling in their decadence and malignance.

The ambition of putting on The Rake’s Progress at all, let alone in this production, can only be commended, and its execution is equally as impressive. This production is challenging and enjoyable – a real pleasure to watch and listen to.

9/10

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