Saturday 23 January 2010

Unsettling, ambiguous, right

The Rake’s Progress, Royal Opera House, London

Music by Igor Stravinsky, Libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, Director Robert Lepage

The spare brass harmonies that begin The Rake’s Progress are almost renaissance, if it were not for the dark edge of discord that sours them. But when the curtain goes up it’s on a blue sky and wide open country. A young couple lie on a red blanket in the summer heat, their gingham and denim outfits declaring that we’re in the innocent America of cowboy films. Innocent if it wasn’t for the ominous nodding donkey moving slowly behind them, pumping the oil out of the ground beneath the slow-drifting clouds.

It’s spring, they’re in love, but even if you’re not familiar with the Hogarth paintings or prints of the same name, you’ve probably guessed that the Rake’s progress will be downwards, not up. Young Tom Rakewell, sung with charm, energy and perfectly timed humour by Toby Spence, wants to be with Anne Trulove. But he doesn’t want to take up her father’s offer of a city job in a counting house. So when a slick, black figure emerges from the oil well, he ignores the obvious warning signs (black cowboy hat, shades, being called Nick Shadow) and happily agrees to go to the city with him and collect an unexpected inheritance.


This is a revival of the 2008 production by Robert Lepage, a deeply visual director, and it draws consciously and unashamedly on cinema and television. You can play ‘spot the movie’ as Anne finally goes after her errant love, driving through a projected city to Psycho-like violins. In other hands this could look lazy, but Lepage uses Hollywood confidently as setting, metaphor and visual vocabulary. As soon as Tom has left innocence behind, Shadow takes the Director’s chair, sitting aloft on a camera crane, megaphone in hand.

And it fits the work. Both libretto and music treat cultural history as a rich store cupboard to be plundered for a virtuoso banquet.  Between Mozartian recitative – complete with harpsichord – and lyrical duets and trios, passages that wouldn’t be out of place in a film noir score (or an atonal chamber concert) place the opera firmly in the 20th century. The folktale storyline is echoed by folksong-like tunes and lyrics, and at times the singers address the audience directly, somewhere between Brecht and music hall.

True, there are points where the staging seems to have strayed away from the work. When Tom sings about the repetitive onslaught of London life, and how he can find darkness only in his heart, he should be immersed in the streetlit city. In this production he sits outside his trailer under a starry sky. When his wife sings first about her endless collection of pointless knick-knacks, and later about having lost them all to financial ruin, we have to take her word for it – the setting is a bare terrace, swimming pool and sea, all shining water and sky.

It’s a little surprising that Lepage throws in some contemporary soft targets for satire, As well as oil as the root of all evil, television is shoehorned in as – literally - the work of the devil. But next to the surreal imagination of the work itself, they pale into irrelevance. Sick of the emptiness of London life, Tom is persuaded to marry a fairground bearded lady in a spurious act of existential self-determination. Later, weary of money and marriage, he dreams of creating a machine that turns stones into bread, surely a more provocative act of human hubris than the invention of television advertising.


It would be easy to get the tone wrong, in a piece that moves nimbly from lyrical romance to humour to metaphysical tragedy. But all the performers hit the right spot every time, confidently taking the audience with them on a journey into moral ambiguity. Anne Truelove keeps her romantic heroine’s mission – to forgive and redeem Tom – through to the end, and Rosemary Joshua gives Anne complexity as well as heart and voice. Patricia Bardon as Baba the Turk moves on from broad-brush comedy to touchingly vulnerable resignation. Kyle Ketelson’s Nick Shadow drops his mesmerising charm to become chillingly powerful. What started out as a romp becomes very serious indeed.

Just when you think you’ve been through everything, the five main characters leap in front of the descending curtain. ‘Good people, just a moment!’ they sing. There’s a moral to draw, or several different morals. But mainly, that the Devil finds work for idle hands – which means , ‘Dear Sir, dear Madam, for you, and you, and you,’ and the performers are pointing at us as the house lights go up.

Yes, you could take that as a crude message from Robert Lepage, that we the opera audience are the idle rich, the idle, consumerist, oil-burning, television-watching rich. But it didn’t feel like that. It felt – unsettling. Ambiguous. Right.

26, 28, 30 January, 1,3 February 2010


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