“The Rake’s Progress,” an opera in three acts and an epilogue by Igor Stravinsky, was one of the six operas performed at this year’s Festival International d’art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence. Although relatively modern, compared to the classical opera repertoire (it premiered on 11 April 1951), Simon McBurney’s visually striking and infinitely creative staging gives it an additional innovative edge.
English actor, writer, and director McBurney is no newcomer to the Aix Festival. The memorable production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” he directed in 2014 for this event will be revived next year when Bernard Foccroulle will bow out as the Festival’s director after 11 years.
A Faustian Tragedy
The opera tells the story of decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, who, as his winking surname suggests, is the indolent, titular rake who goes down to destruction. After unexpectedly inheriting a fortune from a mysterious uncle, he deserts his virtuous fiancée Anne Trulove in the company of Nick Shadow, who, initially an obliging manservant, in a Mephistopheles-like twist is gradually revealed to aspire to conquer not Nick’s money but his soul.
Led on by the devious Shadow, Rakewell goes through several misadventures spending quality time at Mother Goose’s brothel and getting to know its many male and female inmates. In order to achieve happiness, he takes the frankly creepy step to “take to wife” bearded lady Baba the Turk. He neither loves nor desires her but in keeping with Shadow’s advice, in order to achieve happiness, one “must learn to act freely and learn to ignore those twin tyrants of appetite and conscience.” Having squandered all the money, Tom ends up in Bedlam, a London psychiatric institution.
A Don Giovanni-style epilogue, sung by all the protagonists, summarizes the moral of the tale:
“For idle hands
And hearts and minds
The Devil finds
A work to do,
A work, dear Sir, fair Madam,
For you and you.”
The entertaining English-verse libretto was written by the English-American poet Wystan Hugh Auden, with whom Stravinsky had become friends after moving to the USA in 1939 and who shared the composer’s taste for hard spirits, and American poet, librettist, and translator Chester Kallman. It is based loosely on the eight paintings and engravings “A Rake’s Progress (1733–1735)” by 18th-century English pictorial satirist and social critic William Hogarth, which Stravinsky had seen at a Chicago exhibition in 1947.
The Original Rake
In the first third of the 18th century, when Hogarth embarked on his Progress, “the rake” was a long-established symbol of masculine waywardness and depravity. An inveterate ‘”man of leisure,” the rake of convention fritters his fortune, usually inherited, on sex, drink, and gambling. Along the way, he amasses huge debts and seduces, impregnates and abandons at least one young woman. A literary convention had developed in which the rake started life as an impressionable young man from the country who came to the city after inheriting money to embark swiftly on a dissolute life. His fate typically involved disease, debtor’s prison, and death.
Stars in the Making
The production features a mostly American cast. Two talented singers, soprano Julia Bullock and tenor Paul Appleby, play the frustrated romantic duo of Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell. Appleby, who had sung the role previously, most notably at The Metropolitan Opera, and who is one the world’s leading interpreters of 20th-century opera repertoire, provided a convincing performance. He managed to convey Tom’s eagerness to master the newly discovered world of pleasure and vice, his pervasive cluelessness, and gradual slip into insanity. His lyric tenor filled the outdoor Théâtre de Archevêché and provided several highlights including “Vary the song” in Act II and especially the tragic final scene in which Rakewell has gone mad and fancies himself a repentant Adonis to Anne Trulove’s tender and compassionate Venus.
But it was Julia Bullock, who turned out to be the opera’s emotional powerhouse. Her delicate soprano, which hit the score’s high notes convincingly, gave the character depth and sincerely without making it boring and unnecessarily prim. It is a large role and Bullock, just as Appleby, was superb in the final scene to which she gave a contained yet deeply moving interpretation.
The demonic Nick Shadow was played by bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen. Despite the unquestionable verve, the performance was too sleek and controlled, ultimately unable to convey much emotion, let alone fear, once the antagonist’s true identity and designs had been revealed.
The True Star
The real star of the show however was the stage set designed by Michael Levine. It was a white box made of paper. Various images, ranging from 18th century pastoral scenes, to a modern city harsh executive skyline, London black cabs, Instagram-inspired compositions, a crashing stock exchange, or Baba the Turk’s gilded boudoir are projected against its starkness to effectively convey the drastically changing atmosphere. The paper is gradually torn by variously protruding objects, most notably a giraffe, glitzy antiques and an upside down Vénus de Milo, which Baba has accumulated during her escapades, so internationally overwhelming, that she struggles to remember them all.
Baba the Turk, the main character’s bearded wife, who is famous for being famous, is another visual highlight. The role was originally written for a mezzo-soprano but was performed in this production by countertenor Andrew Watts. Although the vocal performance was at times uneven, the massive red-haired do, elaborately curled beard and camp drag-queen larger than life impersonation were a most welcome and cleverly used addition.
All projection stops in the final scene and the mad Tom is left desolate in a partially destroyed white misery sadly associated with psychiatric wards.
A Neo-classical Mix
The production’s weakest link is perhaps the performance of the orchestra. Under the baton of Norwegian conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen, l’Orchestre de Paris, which is in its first year of residence at the Aix Festival, delivered an excessively careful and confined interpretation of Stravinsky’s kaleidoscopic score.
In fairness, Daniel Harding, the orchestra’s musical director, had suffered an injured wrist only days before the opening night with Eivind Gullberg Jensen standing in at the last moment. Several cancelled rehearsals due to the weather have perhaps prevented the cooperation from fully blossoming.
The Rake’s Progress is Stravinsky’s longest composition and the last one in his co-called neo-classical period. In true neo-classical style, it pays tribute to the opera’s greats of previous ages and presents an incredibly intricate mix of Mozart-inspired pastiche and tributes to Bach, Cimarosa, and Tchaikovsky. Although tamer and more conservative compared to the sustained aggression in “The Rite of Spring,” it also contains powerful dissonance typical of the 20th century, off-kilter rhythms and angular vocal lines. A more emphatic orchestral interpretation would have added to the overall attraction of the performance.
So after all this incredibly enriching vocal, musical, and visual experience, are we left with a simple moral tale? Does it all mean that if we work hard enough, stay away from temptation, and are true in love all will be well and we’ll end up in pastoral (or suburban) bliss instead of a desolate madhouse?
An ambiguous answer is perhaps offered by the inimitable Baba. Striving to prevent naïve young ladies from future suffering, she declares in the epilogue in a Shakespearean tone:
“You will find out soon or later
That, good or bad,
All men are mad;
All they say or do is theatre.”
And this is the most interesting aspect of the opera. The masterpieces of generations past come together to inspire a modern-day tale and it is each generation’s challenge to extract its own wisdom from the theatricality of it all.