There is something poetic about Robert Lepage’s 2008 staging of The Rake’s Progress being far removed from anything that either Stravinsky or his librettists, WH Auden and Chester Kallman, had ever envisaged.
After all, the opera itself has less to do with its inspiration Hogarth’s eponymous set of eight paintings than we are frequently led to believe.
Like the paintings, the opera charts the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell as he comes into wealth, is then led astray, and ends up dying in a mental asylum. Hogarth’s paintings, however, were a commentary on contemporary eighteenth century life. They may have carried a strong moral message, but they were less about heaven and hell than with the world that the artist inhabited here and now. Unlike the opera, there was no place in his paint box for pacts with the devil.
For this reason, the originality of Lepage’s concept and Carl Fillion’s sets feels entirely appropriate. It is not enough, however, to think that a myriad of weird and wonderful ideas can be thrown together and work of their own accord. All the scenes present different views of 1950s America, ranging from the spacious plantations of the Deep South to the red carpet glamour of a movie premiere. Within this, a caravan inflates on stage, a car ride sees the wind blow the scarf from the driver’s neck, and a swimming pool throws up water whenever someone dives in.
But all these effects feel like gimmicks when the staging as a whole tends to dominate, rather than support, the performers. The set for the first scene is so large and bare that the four protagonists could never hope to fill the space, leaving them ‘crying’ to little effect in the void. Conversely, at the start of the second scene, the debaucherous bar is placed so far forward that the tangle of drunks and dancers is too great to comprehend anything. Other sets fare better, but it is notable that the principals are at their most effective during the epilogue when they stand in a line and address the audience directly, a black curtain sufficing for their ‘scenery’.
Notwithstanding the difficulties they sometimes face in making their presence felt, the cast feels accomplished enough. As Tom Rakewell, Toby Spence has a basically light voice, but one that possesses such underlying power that his cries of love or despair become very moving. As Anne Trulove, Rosemary Joshua presents a convincing portrayal of a needful lady, and her frequent positioning of her body to face the audience reveals how her devotion to Tom has isolated her from everything else in the world.
But it is Kyle Ketelsen’s devil of a Nick Shadow that steals the show. Standing cleanly, moving deftly, and gesturing with a strong air of menace, his firm bass-baritone voice booms to great effect, and his diction is the strongest of the evening. Sound support also comes from Jeremy White’s cigar smoking, swaggering Trulove, and Graham Clark’s acrobatic auctioneer. Patricia Bardon is also on top form as she revels in the comedy role of Baba the Turk, bursting into rage as she wallows in a swimming pool.
Nevertheless, your enjoyment of the evening will almost certainly rest upon how well you take to the staging. Many people have found it more effective than me, and so with such a strong cast in tow, it’s a production worth taking a risk on. Similarly, though there’s no guarantee that you’ll be moved by Stravinsky’s score (for those who don’t know it, picture a ‘lyrical opposite’ to The Rite of Spring!), you will certainly hear it at its best, courtesy of the stylish conducting of Ingo Metzmacher.