Robert Lepage's new production of The Rake's Progress, unveiled in Brussels in April 2007 and now in London by way of Lyon and San Francisco, transforms the action to 1950s East-Coast America, where Stravinsky was living while writing his masterpiece.
Tom Rakewell is seduced by the ultimate American Dream of Hollywood and Vegas, and the artificial glamour of the movies certainly provides a meaningful backdrop to the recounting of Auden's libretto.
Lepage's postmodern approach also means that the cinema is both the subject of the production and the mechanics behind it: in Act II, Scene 2, Tom and Baba the Turk arrive at the premiere of their new film, but in other scenes, filmed sequences provide the backdrops, such as the traffic behind Anne's car during her journey to London. While Anne sings her first-act aria, a model of the Truloves' house at the rear of the stage shows an animated figure of Trulove walking around inside. The front of the stage lifts up to reveal Mother Goose's brothel; Act II, Scene 1 is set outside Tom's actor's caravan, which inflates through the middle of the stage floor; and the auction takes place around a swimming pool. An additional conceit of the production is that much of the action of the opera is being filmed on television, with Nick Shadow, the devil, as the camera operator/director. This theme reaches its apotheosis in the devastating final scene with the now mad Tom's head being broadcast on a television at the back of the asylum set.
One can't help but admire and be sucked into Lepage's admirably clear and coherent production concept, created with the Ex Machina company. Nevertheless, I must confess it came across more effectively on DVD than it does on the stage. One had the impression here that the focus was on showing off the technical capabilities of the opera house rather than on atmosphere, in which the evening was curiously lacking. In some ways, it seems that in striving to make his ideas work, Lepage has lost the heart of the piece. I also felt that some of the scenic views were too broad, leaving huge expanses of the stage empty and not allowing the soloists the intimacy that many of the scenes in this opera require. Nevertheless, the technical wizardry was well-received by the opening-night audience, and anyone with a taste for theatrical spectacle will not be disappointed.
I think one reason why the show doesn't have the intensity of the DVD is that Covent Garden's two lead singers, tenor Charles Castronovo as Tom and soprano Sally Matthews as Anne, aren't the equals of their Brussels counterparts (former Young Artist Andrew Kennedy is especially missed for his gut-wrenching portrayal of Tom). Though he's on top of the role and gives a lot, Castronovo's voice is on the light side for this opera, and more importantly, he doesn't deliver the goods emotionally or interpretatively. Matthews looks and sounds beautiful as Anne, and the security of her voice in the upper register is admirable, delivering a wonderfully strong high C at the end of her aria, for instance. However, I would have liked a more easily-floating legato for such a lyrical part: Schwarzkopf originated the role and Felicity Lott sang it here over twenty years ago, but Matthews doesn't come close to the vocal poise of either.
The star player here by far is John Relyea as Nick Shadow. Perhaps that's appropriate in light of the character he plays, but it's a shame there's not more of a struggle with Tom. Relyea has much more vocal presence than any of the other singers, belting out his music way beyond the footlights from the acoustically cavernous set, and his acting is equally accomplished. He dominates every scene in which he appears. The other excellent performance came from Patricia Bardon as Baba the Turk; again, here we have a fine singer-actress with an innate sense of style. I also thought Peter Bronder was an above-average Sellem; former Young Artist Darren Jeffery (whom we interviewed here) had outstanding gravitas as Trulove and Kathleen Wilkinson made a strong impression as Mother Goose. A good night, too, for The Royal Opera Chorus, not merely singing with gusto but also apparently revelling in the eccentricities demanded of them by the production.
Thomas Adès' conducting was less wholly successful for me. He brings out the jagged edges very well, but the Mozartian lightness of touch and sensuous lines are missing. Adès seems not to have the measure of the score, which should flash by in deftly-written arcs but here lost its way in the less dramatic, more contemplative scenes, which were limply paced. I was in a minority in not admiring Adès' opera The Tempest, but the main problem I found there, namely a lack of support for the voices, is also true of this performance of The Rake. The orchestra plays very well, yet too often drowns out the soloists. More colour is also needed; but I suspect that many of these problems will be overcome during the course of the run.
In sum, Lepage's theatrical flair makes the trip to the opera house worthwhile, despite musical reservations.
Photographs: Bill Cooper