Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Rake’s Progress @ Coliseum, London

29 November, 1, 4, 6, 8, 11, 13, 15 December 2001

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: Grant Smith)

I came away from the first night of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress not quite knowing what to think, and it was interesting to see that other reviewers disagreed markedly with one another in their comments. Some gave it a ringing endorsement, others were unsure.

I’m in the latter category, but I differ from most in thinking that the main problem is not staging or cast – though there were some problems with both – but in the fact that Stravinsky was not a great opera composer. This is his only real opera, and while the music, in his neoclassical style, is exciting, it’s just not lyrical enough for me, and causes too many problems for the singers.

Inspired by Hogarth’s eponymous set of engravings (which were exhibited in Chicago in 1947), Stravinsky’s version was first performed at La Fenice in Venice in 1951. This new production is set in America around that time, with lush and attractive designs by Yannis Thavoris – also responsible for the beautifully spare ‘Rape of Lucretia’ at Aldeburgh and ENO earlier this year.

Tom Rakewell, who Stravinsky presumably imagined as the all-American boy of his adopted homeland, is engaged to the wholesome and pretty Anne Trulove but is overheard by the devil, Nick Shadow, wishing for money. Nick leads him to the delights, temptations and horrors of the big city and it’s all downhill from there.

The problem is that Tom, as played by Barry Banks, is just not convincing as the naïve lad-about-town, partly because of his diminutive stature and partly because his voice, though undeniably beautiful, just doesn’t have the power to be heard above the orchestra. This is Tom Thumb rather than Tom Rakewell. Nick Shadow on the other hand is unmissable as played by Gidon Saks – a larger-than-life character with superb stage presence and a tremendous bass-baritone voice.

Director Annabel Arden has made the most of the huge difference in their heights, and at times it seems as if Tom is a puppet being physically manipulated by Nick. There are also distinct homoerotic overtones, and the programme notes refer to the fact that a ‘beard’ was gay slang for a homosexual’s wife or escort, which may or may not explain the odd character of Baba, the bearded lady whom Tom marries at Nick’s suggestion.

Baba is played by Sally Burgess, who despite being placed too far upstage for clarity at some points is magnificent, and shows us she still has a fine pair of legs as well as lungs. John Graham Hall adds to his repertoire of sinister characters as a fine Sellem, especially in the auction scene where he hams it up beautifully. Anne Trulove is finely sung by Lisa Milne; Vladimir Jurowski, Music Director of Glyndebourne, makes a stylish ENO debut in the pit.

There is much to enjoy in this production, but somehow the parts don’t add up to a wholly satisfactory evening.

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The Rake’s Progress @ Coliseum, London