Down the plughole
11/29/2001 - and 1,4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 15 December 2001
Igor Stravinsky: The rake's progress
Barry Banks (Tom Rakewell), Gidon Sacks (Nick Shadow), Gerard O'Connor (Trulove), Lisa Milne (Anne Trulove), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Mother Goose), Sally Burgess (Baba the Turk), John Graham-Hall (Sellem)
ENO chorus and orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Annabel Arden (director)
The rake's progress is usually classified as neo-classical, like Stravinsky's earlier orchestral and short music-drama works, because its music shares with them a starting point in the formal structures and methods of the eighteenth century, from perhaps Bach to early Beethoven. But even, say, Pulcinella and the Violin Concerto, which in small ways use of arbitrary material from different contexts to press contemporary buttons, could defensibly be described as post-modern. This is incomparably more true of The rake's progress, with its aspirant Brittenish Englishness based in Purcell's songs, its inspiration (and conventional visual decor) in Hogarth and its up-front homage to Mozart and Da Ponte, not to mention its recombination of the latter two elements from Der Rosenkavalier and its Russian-gothic resonances from The queen of spades. Yet it is easy to present the Rake as an almost pretty work, an arty Anglo upgrade of its near-contemporary compendium of what opera-lovers expect, The ballad of Baby Doe. The main roles are clear-cut types and provide set pieces and vocal gestures for great singers to do their stuff, and there is lots of scope for clever sets and frocks. And there are analogous risks for the music itself: it can come over as too twee by half or chilly and soulless.
Annabel Arden and Vladimir Jurowski in the new production of the Rake at the ENO have separately (and perhaps collectively) avoided taking a hard-and-fast conceptual view of the work. Arden seems to see the whole thing as a series of performances: Tom and Anne's pastoral is an amateur production of Venus and Adonis for Anne's dad, Tom auditions in Mother Goose's brothel, and is directed throughout by Nick Shadow, who at one point takes him on his knee like a ventriloquist holding a dummy. The final scene in the madhouse is reprise of the pastoral, and the singers perform the Don Giovanni-like moralizing close as they remove wigs, beard and greasepaint. Jurowski brings out the very diverse sources of the music without ever letting it turn into a patchwork, highlighting the skill of both the composer and the orchestra.
The setting is, in a muted sort of way, New York in the early 1950: the low-life could come from either Soho, Tom stays at the Algonquin, and Nick and his helpers could be in Guys and Dolls, though there is a general lack of euphoria. Baba's stuff looks like the rubbish from the ENO's recent Figaro, and a focal point is the clock in the brothel, which has a plughole as its centre. The set itself is full of wide open spaces, perhaps suggesting Tom's isolation or perhaps a misfired attempt to scale up a more intimate conception. For example, the card game takes place not in a graveyard, but in the brothel again, with Sellem and Mother Goose striking gothic poses at the far sides of the stage, apparently intended to be framing figures from an allegory but too far from the action to work.
But if the production has its oddities, the performance as a whole certainly does work, finding a strange kind of humanity in the detached music and allusive action. Lisa Milne was outstanding as Anne, wholesome, getting on for hearty, and utterly good without being goody-two-shoes. She sang No word from Tom, her big scena, like an old-fashioned diva, and, while she didn't quite engage fully in the general physicality of the production, was a substantial presence throughout. Barry Banks, who is quite small, was an elfin Tom, happier in his strange, haunting upper register. His double act with Gidon Saks' Nick was intense and quite horrible at times. Saks has a great theatrical presence as well as a huge, and pretty good if not particularly focused voice. You could also hear about three quarters of his words, which was far better than anyone else except Sally Burgess, a glamorous Russian-style Baba, and John Graham-Hall, a scary, cadaverous Sellem, both of whom achieved a hundred percent. Gerard O'Connor as Trulove and Rebecca de Pont Davies as Mother Goose provided impressive support, as did the chorus.