Following his last visit with Lorin Maazel’s less-than-successful adaptation of 1984, Canadian director Robert Lepage returns to the Royal Opera House with a radical re-thinking of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Like Robert Carsen’s Candide, currently playing at the Coliseum, Lepage’s concept turns an 18th Century original, worked over by a 20th Century composer, into a journey through 1950s America.
Hearing The Rake’s Progress for the first time can be quite a surprise. Based as it is on Hogarth’s earthy set of 18th Century prints, tracking the progress of a dissolute youth indulging his baser instincts before dying a raddled and crazed death, you might expect the fire and spikiness of Stravinsky at his most dissonant. Instead, the work is full of lyricism and gentleness, crawling at a snail’s pace and with the effect of a messy situation ruminated over and handled with tongs and rubber gloves.
At its danciest, it’s Pulcinella and even the most confrontational material is delicacy personified. It’s tempting to say it lacks bite, even with a vampiric devil figure who looms over the Rake’s journey like a controlling Mephistopheles. Perhaps the most mystifying element is the invention, by composer and librettists, of a strange circus freak figure, the bearded lady Baba the Turk, who the Rake marries for no perceivable reason, other than to exercise his sense of existential freedom. He can so he does but, for me, it just doesn’t ring true in the way, for instance, Camus’ outsider does when he shoots a man out of a lack of moral and social obligation.
The book by WH Auden and his partner Chester Kallman is as dense and impenetrable as much of the former’s poetry, providing a barrier between us and the lives of the characters. Stravinsky and his writers were in a sense true to the episodic nature of Hogarth’s narrative, staggering from set-piece to set-piece but dramatically it doesn’t quite hang together, with a stop-start feeling to it. Many of the scenes feel like huge planets, turning slowly on their axis, stuck within their own field of gravity and never moving forward.
Lepage’s production, which updates the action to 1950s America, is never less than inventive, with imaginative and often comical imagery. With a wide-screen Texas oilfield out of Giant, a pneumatic flying caravan trailer, a Wild West saloon with balletic punch-up, a trip to London that takes in a Leicester Square film premiere, a Sunset Boulevard swimming pool and Nick Shadow as a diabolical director floating over all as a megaphone-blasting director figure, the cinema references abound. Somehow, though, its cleverness is all a bit antiseptic and Lepage’s concept keeps us at a further remove from the bloody guts of Hogarth’s morality tale.
There are colourful turns from Charles Castronovo as Rakewell, Sally Matthews a demure and beautiful Anne Trulove, Patricia Bardon the hairy Turk and John Relyea’s quietly demonic Nick Shadow, looking like an overgrown Ant or Dec (I’m not sure which) with high forehead and snub nose. In smaller parts, Peter Bronder is a squat game show host as the auctioneer Sellem, Katheen Wilkinson a fruity Mother Goose the bawd, and Darren Jeffrey impresses as Anne’s cigar-chewing oil magnate father.
Thomas Adès conducts with the utmost delicacy and an obvious love of the score. Try as hard as I can, I find it difficult to love it as much, although there’s plenty of attractive music and the boldness of the graveyard scene with Tom and Nick Shadow’s extended duet sung against just a harpsichord continuo is as spellbinding as almost anything in modern opera.