Neither Stravinsky, Hogarth nor W.H Auden were best served by the new production at Covent Garden of The Rake’s Progress, first night of five shows on July 7. Robert Lépage seems to be one of those directors determined to stamp a production with his own personality rather than project that of the composer or librettist. So, here we have yet another of these ‘concept’ productions. In this case Lépage’s stated idea is to angle the opera from the point of view of the period/time during which the composer was writing; so we are in a world of 1950, of tv (flickering sets all over the stage), oil (there’s a nodding donkey in the Trulove garden – which turns into a film camera in the brothel scene – Hollywood for the moment, it’ll be Las Vegas by and by) oh! The unnecessary expense of all the gadgetry! Tom Rakewell is dressed initially as a cowboy; in the scene of Baba’s first appearance, Anne arrives in a red sports car, Baba in a sedan outside on Oscar evening-cinema exterior. In Tom’s town house there is a bubble which turns into an indoors caravan. Baba is not submerged by the usual tea cosy but in a swimming pool, later the scene of the Auction. There are some better ideas: the explosions of light when Tom shakes hands with Nick Shadow; and the way in which the coupling Tom and Mother Goose literally disappear through a hole in the bed.
But the director, for all the gimmicks, floors that up and down neon lights etc., does not add anything to the story nor bring the characters to life.
So, what of the music? Thomas Adés conducts but fails to point up the sharpness, the pathos or the tenderness in the score. The orchestra plays well, the chorus sings well but the result is dull, lacklustre. And of the voices, only John Relyea’s Nick Shadow seems truly worthy to stand and deliver on our number one operatic stage where so many great voices have been heard in the past. Sally Matthews sings her lullaby in the looney-bin beautifully softly but her louder notes do not charm, move one, or seem in focus.
Charles Castronovo’s voice for the Rake on this occasion dealt with the notes but lacked sap and projection. Patricia Bradon sang well as Baba and showed an almost totally hirsute body above a good pair of legs. Sellem, the auctioneer was badly cast, neither well sung, funny or interesting.
Stravinsky seemed pleased with the libretto but most of act two sounds as if he didn’t quite understand all the intellectual quirks and implications of the text which surely tries too hard to establish its literary credentials, too often trying to show an eighteenth century style but giving the composer some pretty unsolvable problems.