Friday 20 March 2015

The Rake's Progress, Royal Academy of Music, 16 March 2015

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Tom Rakewell – Bradley Smith
Anne Trulove – Rhiannon Llewellyn
Nick Shadow – Božidar Smiljanić
Baba the Turk – Claire Barnett-Jones
Sellem – Gwilym Bowen
Trulove – Lancelot Nomura
Mother Goose – Katherine Aitken
Keeper of the Madhouse – Ed Ballard 

John Ramster (director)
Adrian Linford (designs)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

The apogee of neo-Classicism, an opera surely intended to incite debate upon debate about it and its form, whatever Stravinsky’s typically disingenuous, eye-twinkling denials, The Rake’s Progress is, unless one is Pierre Boulez, very difficult not to admire, almost as difficult not in some sense to disapprove of or at least to suspect, perhaps almost as difficult to love. I think this Royal Academy staging might just have proved me wrong on the final point.

For what struck me about John Ramster’s production and, of course, the performances onstage it inspired, was that they treated this first and foremost as an opera. They  certainly were neither deaf nor blind to the debates – ‘The Rake’s Progress seemed to have been created for journalistic debates concerning: a) the historical validity of the approach; and, b) the question whether I am guilty of imitation and pastiche. If the Rake contains imitations, however – of Mozart, as has been said – I will gladly allow the charge (given the breadth of the Aristotelian word), if I may thereby release people from the argument and bring them to the music.’ (Stravinsky) – but they did not become ensnared by them. Still less did they mistake them for questions of æsthetic quality. Ramster’s production frames the work well, the first scene indicating a mid-twentieth-century filming of an eighteenth-century drama, and there are occasional reminders, not least the appearance in various guises of indications as to how many days Tom Rakewell will have left before his reckoning with Nick Shadow. But for the most part, that framing falls away, and a somewhat yet not excessively stylised set of designs (all handsomely done by Adrian Linford) is not mistaken for human hearts beating beneath the framing and the ‘debates’.

For that, the cast, well prepared by Jane Glover, naturally deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Bradley Smith presented a weak, human, yet impossible-not-to-like Tom: just as he should be. His sappy tenor proved appealing throughout, but moving too, especially towards the end: all very much in character. Rhiannon Llewellyn’s Anne combined grace and beauty to a properly euphonious degree; her first act aria was very fine indeed. Božidar Smiljanić’s Nick stole the show on a number of occasions: protean, dark, and humorous. One could hardly have asked for more. Claire Barnett-Jones revealed a richly expressive voice as well as a finely-judged sense of humour as Baba. As Sellem, Gwilym Bowen offered a very different sense of humour, utterly captivating, never outstaying its welcome, and likewise never at the expense of excellent musical values, line and attention to the words exemplary. Indeed, there was hardly a moment in the entire performance on which one could not readily discern Auden’s libretto. Lancelot Nomura’s deep-voiced Trulove, Katherine Aitken’s haughtily naughty Mother Goose, and Ed Ballard’s Keeper of the Madhouse rounded off, but certainly did not merely round off, an excellent cast.

Choral singing was mightily impressive, as was Ramster’s direction of the chorus. After a slightly, though only slightly, shaky start, in which Glover’s conducting lacked the bite one (not unreasonably) expects, the orchestra passed with flying colours too. Again, a heart was revealed, without any loss to the intellectual, time-travelling revels, in which now more than ever one can understand why Stravinsky would make his next (apparent) about turn. Schoenberg est mort, or rather he may, to a post-war generation, have seemed to be; serialism, however, was already in Stravinsky’s personal way under preparation. Richard Leach's harpsichord playing, not least in that extraordinary graveyard solo, was dazzling.

I am not yet entirely won over by Henze’s typically anti-Boulezian – and not just anti-him – words from an interview in 1967:

Soon the ‘clusters’, the serial recitatives and the ‘happenings’ will have exhausted themselves, and the young composer will look around in vain in this wasteland for something to nourish his hungry soul. I believe, in contrast to Boulez for whom the neo-Classical Stravinsky is 'very weak' (there they go, forty years of musical history, brushed aside in a couple of words!), that in the next few years he will be seen properly for the first time, and understood in all his greatness and significance. The history of music knows plenty of examples where a reorientation has been necessary. This will be the case in the near future too.

In any case, that debate is surely dead and buried; no one thinks about ‘Darmstadt’ like that any more, nr indeed even speaks of ‘Darmstadt’ as such a thing-in-itself; I doubt, moreover, that anyone thinks about Henze and Stravinsky quite in Boulez-of-1960s vein either. For me, neo-Classical Stravinsky’s achievements nevertheless remain very mixed; Orpheus, for instance, I dislike as much as ever, though ‘dislike’ is not to be confused with ‘denigrate’. Perhaps, though, I was edged a little closer to Henze on this occasion. If so, it was by virtue of this fine staging and performance.