Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Rake's Progress, Royal Opera, 22 January 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Trulove – Jeremy White
Anne Trulove – Rosemary Joshua
Tom Rakewell – Toby Spence
Nick Shadow – Kyle Ketelsen
Mother Goose – Frances McCafferty
Baba the Turk – Patricia Bardon
Sellem – Graham Clark
Madhouse Keeper – Jonathan Coad

Robert Lepage (director)
Sybille Wilson (revival director)
Carl Fillon (set designs)
François Barbeau (costumes)
Etienne Boucher (lighting)
Boris Firquet (video)
Michael Keegan Dolan (choreography)
Rachel Poirer and Milos Galko (revival choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Westrop)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

First time around, I had rather liked Robert Lepage’s production of The Rake’s Progress, writing: ‘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.’ A little later, I quoted Lepage saying that he had 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?’

What, then, had changed? First, I suspect that the production itself is subject to diminishing returns. The Hollywood trappings – Nick Shadow filming, Tom Rakewell’s trailer, the swimming pool and so on – do not seem to offer up any more upon a second viewing. The loss of London grated rather more than it had, since the replacement did not seem adequate, an especially unfortunate moment coming during the third act when it was suggested that Tom had fled ‘to America’. Had he ever been away? Second, the revival direction seemed to me significantly less sharp than the original. Social criticism might not have been intentional the first time around, but it shone through nevertheless. Here, one wondered whether Hollywood were being enjoyed for its own sake; there was certainly little if any hint of McCarthyism. And third, the audience really did not help. Expecting anything much from the greater part of a Covent Garden audience is doubtless foolish, but this seemed to be an especially unimaginative, uncomprehending bunch. Applause and laughter could be heard all over the place, sometimes at the most truly inopportune moments. (What on earth was amusing about the graveyard scene?) The multiple alienations Stravinsky, Auden, and, one might at least have hoped, the production set before us went as pearls before swine; a friend of mine heard someone next to her exclaim that ‘the show’ reminded him of Hello, Dolly! Many of the people, moreover, would appear to have been deaf – rendering opera an eccentric choice for their evening’s ‘entertainment’ – since they could not even hear when numbers came to a close, applauding some time beforehand, sometimes whistling too (?!). These people, apparently determined to show off however much they have paid for their tickets, do not seem prepared even to attempt to think, and lessen the experience for the rest of us.

The musical performances varied. Patricia Bardon once again proved a strong Baba, touching in a way one rarely experiences, a trouper of the old school. (Stephanie Blythe had pulled out, likewise the anticipated Kate Royal as Anne Trulove.) There was nothing one could reasonably complain about in Kyle Ketelsen’s Nick, but he seemed to take time to warm up. Certainly by the second act, and then especially during the graveyard scene, he seemed properly possessed by the demon and his demons. Rosemary Joshua seemed to me a considerably stronger Anne than Sally Matthews had: purity of voice and character did not this time entail an inability to make her words tell, far from it. Graham Clark’s Sellem was more character actor than singer; his voice faltered alarmingly more than once. But sadly, the principal disappointment was Toby Spence’s Tom. There is a degree of blankness to the character, I appreciate, yet I was surprised nevertheless by Spence’s woodenness. The developmental aspect I noted to Charles Castronovo’s portrayal in 2008 was considerably less apparent. Moreover, there were times when the vocal line was not nearly so well shaped as it might have been. Choral singing improved, but was disturbingly unfocused in Mother Goose’s brothel.

Ingo Metzmacher’s account of the score ultimately proved puzzling, almost a mirror-image of that of Thomas Adès, whose conducting had proved the major drawback a year-and-a-half ago. There was much greater bite to the first two acts, a proper Stravinskian desiccation, which both repels and fascinates. For this, the fine form of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House must be credited. I longed for greater warmth – but that is just as it should be. To give in would be to risk collapse of the neo-classical conceit. However, the Bedlam Scene proved interminable, weirdly sentimentalised. Clearly a contrast was being drawn, but I wish it had not been, since much of the earlier good work was undone. Nothing though could quite detract from the brilliance of the graveyard scene, where Stravinsky achieves the near-impossible in harpsichord writing that does not make one long for the piano. Is this the mask dropping? It is probably just another mask, but at least the question is posed.