Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Rake’s Progress review – Hockney meets Hogarth at Glyndebourne

4, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 25, 27 August 2023

Glyndebourne’s oldest production survives the test of time.

The Rake's Progress

Rupert Charlesworth (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

It is not often that one emerges from the opera house feeling that the success of the evening rested primarily on the designs. This is not to downplay the strength of the musical credentials or the direction in this instance, but it seems clear that Glyndebourne Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress would not be what it is without David Hockney’s set and costume designs. Over two thirds as old as the opera itself, John Cox’s version began life in 1975, and was most recently seen at the festival in 2010 and on tour in 2021. In addition to being Glyndebourne’s oldest extant production, and one of its most widely travelled, it also represents the first time that Hockney ever designed for the opera. 

While Stravinsky’s 1951 opera and Hogarth’s paintings both chart the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell as he comes into wealth, is then led astray, and ends up dying in a mental asylum, there are important differences. The painting cycle was less about heaven and hell than with the world that the artist inhabited in the here and now meaning that, unlike the opera, there was no place in Hogarth’s paintbox for pacts with the devil. This does not mean, however, that the paintings did not carry a strong moral message, and Stravinsky, and his librettists W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, may have argued that they were making them fit for purpose in operatic form by personifying the themes of lust, greed and temptation in the figure of Nick Shadow. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the opera did not create a carbon copy of the Hogarth, but was rather inspired by it, and the same might be said of Hockney’s own designs.

The main way in which Hockney ‘imitates’ Hogarth is by using the print, and associated techniques such as cross hatching, as the basis for his designs. From this starting point, however, what results is as much about Hockney as it is Hogarth as one can see many of his own traits and interests within them. There are abundant opportunities to look at the front cloth because it descends between each scene, but never has one been more worthy of close inspection. The overall aesthetic may recall 18th century satirical prints that possess speech bubbles, but the styles and influences are numerous. There are nine images of Tom Rakewell that show him falling in stages from the high life down to earth. Altogether they suggest the hands of a clock moving from the hour to half past it, thus implying that there is an inevitability to Tom’s trajectory with the passing of time. 

A border runs three sides of the main image, which references the fact that prints often possessed them, but also suggests a proscenium arch turned upside down in line with the ‘topsy turvy’ world that is being portrayed. The pictures in the border include musical scores; an artist’s palette that hints at ‘painting by numbers’; a grid-like drawing that suggests cross hatching in its purest form; an image of Baba the Turk; panels that seem reminiscent of Kandinsky and Malevich, and a brick wall that, by being seen straight on, contrasts with two shown at angles on either side of the border. In addition, the leaves on a tree and grass beneath it are executed in quite a free flowing style that can be seen in Hockney’s iPad paintings, begun 35 years later. 

“…Glyndebourne Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress would not be what it is without David Hockney’s set and costume designs”

The Rake's Progress

Tom Rakewell & Louise Alder © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Every scene engages us the instant the curtain rises. Each is made to look like a print as lines and cross hatching form the basis of the aesthetic, but the variation on offer means there is always something in which to take an interest. In the two scenes that occur in the garden of the Truelove’s house, different backdrops suggest the change in time of day and season. 

Interiors feel highly reminiscent of those to be found in Hogarth’s paintings, while the episode in Tom’s morning room with Baba the Turk has a sense of the second scene from his later cycle Marriage A-la-Mode about it. This scene, like others, is faced with the challenge of portraying a two-dimensional print in three-dimensional space, meaning that the lines cross over objects that appear on shelves and hang from the ceiling. Despite being entirely flat, the walls also reveal peeling wallpaper that expose the brickwork underneath. The auction that takes place in this space makes almost everything monochrome as in a print, including the clothes of everyone who graces the stage. At one point, the only exceptions to this rule are Sellem and Baba the Turk, with the coloured highlights in their costumes alluding to the way in which a print might be tinted.  

There are a host of excellent touches so that in the churchyard scene a spade collapses to prompt Tom to choose the Two of Spades as his card. That is in the original directions, but the scene also includes, alongside a headstone for Tom, one for ‘Josh Reynolds’. Given that, in terms of popular perception at least, Reynolds and Hogarth were at opposite ends of the 18th century British art spectrum, there is perhaps a joke here that the latter is burying the former.

Robin Ticciati’s conducting reveals notable delicacy and a remarkable attention to detail, thus ensuring that the London Philharmonic Orchestra delivers in every way. One occasion when it particularly comes into its own is during Anne Trulove’s ‘No word from Tom’. Louise Alder gives a compelling performance, with her voice being as sensitive as it is assertive, and together they make the aria feel as thoroughly modern as it does Baroque. Thomas Atkins really grows in vocal stature as the evening goes on as he increasingly asserts his ringing tenor to excellent effect. Sam Carl, with his powerful bass-baritone, is everything one could wish for in a Nick Shadow, presenting a magnanimous and affable persona, even while showing that something more sinister lurks behind the facade. Alisa Kolosova is simply a class act as Baba the Turk, while there is tremendous support from Alastair Miles as Father Truelove, Carole Wilson as Mother Goose, Rupert Charlesworth as Sellem and Michael Ronan as the Keeper of the Madhouse. On opening night, the curtain call was quite an occasion in its own right as David Hockney himself was one of the production team to take a bow, and the audience responded with a standing ovation. 

• Glyndebourne’s 2023 summer season continues until 27 August. For full details of this, and of its forthcoming autumn season, visit its website.

• For full details of Glyndebourne’s streaming service visit Glyndebourne Encore.

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The Rake’s Progress review – Hockney meets Hogarth at Glyndebourne