Classical and Opera Reviews

The Rake’s Progress @ Royal Festival Hall, London

3 November 2018


Toby Spence

Toby Spence

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress of 1951 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, but the painting cycle was less about heaven and hell than with the world that the artist inhabited here and now. Unlike the opera, there was no place in Hogarth’s paint box for pacts with the devil. This does not mean, however, that the paintings did not carry a strong moral message, and so Stravinsky, and his librettists W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, may well have argued that they were simply making them fit for purpose in operatic form by personifying the themes of lust, greed and temptation in the figure of Nick Shadow.

This presentation by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, was advertised as a concert performance, but it got the balance between letting the music speak for itself, and bringing a suitable degree of dynamism to the proceedings, better than many that are fully staged. For example, Robert Lepage’s 2008 production for the Royal Opera, most recently revived in 2010, was visually stunning, but its tendency to introduce a host of weird and wonderful sets and effects did not help the audience to gain much of a sense of perspective on the work.

In contrast, this performance made a few features, such as Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and the positioning of the chorus, go a long way. The members of London Voices stood seemingly conventionally on either side of the orchestra, with the women on one side and the men on the other, but let their hair down as Mother Goose (a splendid Marie McLaughlin) interacted with them. Then as Anne Trulove expressed her worst fears for Tom the lights dimmed to create a very different mood as half of the chorus exited by brushing past her. This not only heightened Anne’s sense of anxiety and isolation, but allowed for a greater contrast as they came rushing back on for the following, more jubilant, scene. At the end of Act II the entire chorus actually became the machine that supposedly turned stones into bread, with Nick Shadow’s malevolence being emphasised by us actually seeing him sneak a loaf on in a Sainsbury’s ‘bag for life’!

Kitty Callister ensured that the characters did not always wear literal costumes, but sometimes clothes that could have accessories added to them. So, for example, Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell generally wore a black jacket and trousers, but added at various times leopard skin patterned shoes, a smoking jacket and, at the end, a strait jacket. In spite, however, of innovations such as Matthew Rose’s Nick Shadow rising from a seat in the auditorium when he first appeared, the first half felt as if it was merely cruising in a pleasing fashion, and it was only after the interval that the evening rose to another level as everything became sharper.

One of the highlights of Act III was the auction in which Kim Begley as the auctioneer Sellem took the stage by storm, the chorus shone with their various bids, and the voices of both Rose and Spence seemed to come out of nowhere as they delivered their ‘duets’ from various points around the hall. The LPO were on splendid form, really getting under the skin of all of the disparate moods and elements that make up the piece, while harpsichordist Helen Collyer deserves special mention for supporting the virtually Mozartean recitative so well. The orchestra was small enough to allow for a substantial performance area at the front of the stage, while Jurowski conducted from ground level for the first half. A raised podium did appear for the second, but this seems to be mainly so that it could be whipped away from the conductor to form the auctioneer’s own in his scene.

Toby Spence asserted his warm tenor to excellent effect, while Matthew Rose ensured that Nick Shadow’s presence was felt with his powerful, but seemingly effortless, bass. As Anne, Sophia Burgos revealed a highly pleasing soprano, which had a freshness on the one hand and many nuances on the other, and Clive Bayley was a class act as Father Trulove. Countertenor Andrew Watts, who only replaced mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon at short notice, threw himself completely into playing Baba the Turk. Additional humour may have derived from the fact that we were now witnessing a ‘drag act’, but there was subtlety too in the way in which the character first appeared veiled in the choir stalls, before descending and throwing aside her veil to reveal high heels and a beard. Nevertheless, for all of the fun that Watts gleaned from the role, the impact would not have been half as great had his voice not sounded so exceptionally good.

For details of all of its recordings and future events visit the London Philharmonic Orchestra website.


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More on Toby Spence
The Rake’s Progress @ Royal Festival Hall, London
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