Monday 14 July 2008

The Rake's Progress, Royal Opera, 14 July 2008

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Anne Trulove - Sally Matthews
Tom Rakewell - Charles Castronovo
Nick Shadow - John Relyea
Mother Goose - Kathleen Wilkinson
Baba the Turk - Patricia Bardon
Trulove - Darren Jeffery
Sellem - Peter Bronder

Robert Lepage (director)
Sybille Wilson (associate director)
Carl Fillion (designs)
Francois Barbeau (costumes)
Etienne Boucher (lighting)
Michael Keegan Dolan (choreography)
Boris Firquet (video)

Royal Opera House Chorus (chorus master: Renato Baldasonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Thomas Adès (conductor)

After reading a few reviews of earlier performances from this production of The Rake's Progress, I was not really looking forward to it, but Robert Lepage's production seemed to me to delve deeper than many critics had allowed. I had braced myself to overlook the absence of London from the stage but, the odd reference apart, I barely noticed it; even when I did, I could readily make a mental substitution, which did little harm. When I think about it, the laments about the absence of Hogarth's London from the stage seem unintentionally ironic, given the absence of eighteenth-century 'Idea' from Stravinsky's (very) pseudo-eighteenth-century style. In a programme note, 'Stravinsky in the early days of television,' Lepage made a good case for the updating to 1950s America, for instance through his mention of Stravinsky's great interest in the new medium, delineation of Hollywood's 'false historicism', and citation of an essay in which Auden made clear his opposition to naturalism. The best case, however, was on stage, in which one was perfectly at liberty to consider the parallels between the setting and its original form, yet without feeling unduly constrained. Auden, after all, was convinced - like his venerated Wagner - that myth was the stuff of opera, and myth by its very nature must transcend historical particularity.

Lepage writes that he did not 'set out to make a piece of social criticism, so the political and social dimension to the production has arisen through choices that seemed right to me'. This is interesting, since the political and social dimension came across strong and clear. Today's 'celebrity'-fuelled culture, we were reminded, is in many respects nothing new, although it may somehow be even more vacuous than it once was. Hollywood and advertising, as we saw on stage, pursued this cult from the very earliest years, and the figure of Baba the Turk reminds us that notoriety was a great selling-point - literally - during the eighteenth century too. What could be more Hogarthian, post-war, or contemporary than setting off to the City in search of riches and losing them - and much else in the process? Perhaps the setting that most impressed me was the updated Bedlam of the final scene. One need only have the most cursory or even intuitive understanding of Foucault to appreciate the dialectical relationship between modern liberal-capitalist society and the construction of 'madness'. This, in a sense, a construction that has been the story of the opera: Nick Shadow's 'project'. Here, at the end - bar the 'moral - one could see and hear at first hand what our society's barbarism does and has done to us. The relationship of such madness to art, even - perhaps especially - at its most neo-classical-Apollonian, is personified in the relationships between Tom, Anne, Baba, and of course Nick: the Devil - or Dionysus? - himself. In the asylum, the control-room atmosphere chimed perfectly with the ever-increasing tentacles of the administered society. This could doubtless all have been done in an eighteenth-century setting, but the relative distancing, both from our own time and from Hogarth's London, had the benefit, at least for some of us, of making us consider the parallels, the differences, and the historical progression - or regression.

It was the production rather than the musical performances that ultimately made the greatest impression upon me. I had no quarrel with any of the singers; indeed, I thought most of them very good. Charles Castronovo did not erase memories of the composer's Alexander Young (Sony), but then no one else ever has for me either. I wondered to begin with whether Castronovo was a touch anonymous, but then realised - whether by design or default, it hardly matters - that there was to be a great deal of development in his character. This is, however ironically, a rake's progress. Musically he had full command of the score and the intricacies of the libretto. Sally Matthews sang her part beautifully, although I often had difficulty, at least without glancing up to the surtitles, in understanding the words she was singing. This matters, when the libretto is one of the greatest ever penned. Anne's cabaletta, 'I go, I go to him,' was nevertheless exceptionally well done. John Relyea was a highly accomplished Shadow, chameleon-like in his re-invention, yet with a constant heart (?) of darkness to his very being. Patricia Bardon came across as both absurd and touching, a combination which seemed to me to penetrate to the very real heart of Baba. The choral singing was good, if not outstanding, although that must at least partly be attributed to the musical direction, which failed to impart the incisiveness the chorus required.

For my principal reservation lay with the conducting of Thomas Adès. Whilst enthralled by the production, I was so bored by the stodgy, oddly soft-centred approach to the first act that I briefly considered leaving during the interval. So eager, however, was I to see where the production would leave us next that this was not a serious option. However, the aggressive, polemical bite of Stravinsky's score was largely absent, without anything much other than drift to take its place. Matters improved considerably after the interval, although I have still heard much better. Rather to my surprise, the graveyard music, almost Schoenbergian in its remarkably unironic intensity, was splendidly handled, for which tribute must be paid both to the strings and to Christopher Willis on the harpsichord. With that execption, however, Adès, unlike Bardon, let alone Lepage, never seemed to me to penetrate to the heart of Stravinsky's apparently heartless score. This reminded of the mere cleverness I have often fancied I heard in Adès's own music - except here the conducting did not even seem especially 'clever'. Whereas, even when I have been most repelled by Stravinsky - I can accept his brand of neo-classicism much more readily than once I could - I have never doubted that there was a core to the music. By contrast, I have on several occasions wondered about the state of the imperial clothes in the case of Adès, never more so than when I heard The Tempest at Covent Garden, a work that evinced the aimlessness of Britten at his worst, albeit without the individual voice. (Lest this seem unduly harsh, contrast the gracious responses of John Adams and Steve Reich to Pierre Boulez's eightieth birthday with the sourness of Adès.) Despite that, which must be tribute indeed, I left Lepage's Rake - or, perhaps more properly, that of his company, Ex Machina - feeling that I liked and had been challenged by the work more than had been the case before.