Monday 3 December 2007

The Rake's Progress, Royal College of Music, 1 December 2007

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Tyler Clarke – Sellem, auctioneer
Lukas Jakobczyk – Trulove
Sadhbh Dennedy – Anne Trulove
Sigríđur Ósk Kristjánsdóttir – Mother Goose
Stephanie Lewis – Baba the Turk
Aaron McAuley – Nick Shadow
Jonathan Stoughton – Tom Rakewell
Philip Tebb – Keeper of the madhouse

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Michael Roswell (conductor)

Tim Carroll (director)
Soutra Gilmour (designer)
Giuseppe di Iorio (lighting)
Siân Williams (choreographer)

This was a wonderful evening in a wonderful theatre. (For those who do not know the Britten Theatre, it is a marvellously intimate space, with superb acoustics.) To hear a performance of this standard from student musicians of such a tricky work as The Rake’s Progress was a heartening experience indeed.

All of the voices showed great promise, and generally rather more than that. After a slightly wobbly start, Jonathan Stoughton’s Tom impressed, not least through his avoidance of too ‘English tenor’ a sound for the role. His acting convinced mightily, as did that of all the cast. By the time of the graveyard scene, we were truly moved by his plight, which was testament to his fine voice as well as to the production. Lukas Jakobczyk presented a virile bass, sensitively shaded where necessary, in the role of Trulove, whilst Sadhbh Dennedy carried off the difficult balancing act of beauty and blandness demanded by Anne. Her coloratura impressed, not least in her Act I cabaletta. Aaron McAuley’s Nick Shadow was not always quite so sure in his diction, but he presented an amusingly camp reading of the part, doubtless aided by the production. Sigríđur Ósk Kristjánsdóttir proved a worthy temptress as Mother Goose, clearly first amongst equals in her brothel. Stephanie Lewis navigated a steady course for Baba between caricature and undue sentimentality. The moment at which she revealed her bearded face shocked the London crowd and much of the audience too. Philip Tebb did not have much to do as Keeper of the madhouse but did it well, whilst Tyler Clarke was an excellent auctioneer, suave and sinister, yet full of humour too.

The chorus in its various roles, as whores and roaring boys, servants, citizens, and madmen, was excellent throughout. The antiphonal exchanges between men and women were especially well handled, crucial in allowing Auden’s clever rhymes to tell. Not only diction, but pitch and tone were also most impressive. Their choreography was very well conceived and executed too. Indeed, the production, with its stylish colouring of black, white, and red – handy for the role that playing cards play in the tale – told its story very well, without ever unduly drawing attention to itself. Stravinsky wrote that the work was ‘simple to perform musically,’ a claim I should contest in the extreme, ‘but difficult to realise on the stage’. This was certainly accomplished.

The Benjamin Britten International Opera School’s director, Michael Rosewell, was authoritative in his handling of the score: punchy and yet not without tenderness, and always sure of its treacherous twists and turns, from the opening bars’ homage to Monteverdi to the post-Don Giovanni non-moral after the curtain had gone down. The relentless ostinati propelled the action along in exemplary fashion, but the various soli also registered faultlessly and proved unfailingly willing in their decorative capacity. In this, the conductor was of course indebted to his superlative small orchestra, which could have put many professional counterparts to shame. Every section gave of its all. If special word there must be, then it should be awarded to James Southall on the harpsichord. What a weird and wonderful role Stravinsky allots to this alienated continuo, and how splendidly this was projected.

It is difficult, though not impossible, not to admire The Rake’s Progress, almost in spite of its polemical ultra-neo-classicism. Stravinsky was being more than usually disingenuous when he claimed that he wished to ‘release people from the argument and bring them to the music’. He wanted to do the latter, I am sure, but he was very well aware of how many would react and relished that prospect. But it has equally often been difficult to love, or even to like, the work. The performers’ evident success in doing so themselves must have proved infectious for a great part of their audience.