The Rake’s Progress, opera by Igor Stravinsky on a libretto of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. The work premiered on 11 september 1951 in the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Première by the De Nationale Opera in the Muziektheater in Amsterdam on 1 february 2018.
Trulove: David Pittsinger
Anne: Julia Bullock
Tom Rakewell: Paul Appleby
Nick Shadow: Kyle Ketelsen
Mother Goose: Hilary Summers
Baba the Turk: Andrew Watts
Sellem: Alan Oke
Keeper of the Madhouse/Nick Shadow II: Evan Hughes
Koor van De Nationale Opera
Dirigent: Ivor Bolton
Regie: Simon McBurney
In the more than 50 years of existence, the Dutch National Opera – which had different names – has been attacked and threatened by a Fifth Column which closely monitors the artistic management so that it adheres to three unambiguously formulated stringent rules: 1) Thou shalt programme Mozart. 2) Thou shalt programme Wagner, and especially: 3) Thou shalt programme The Rake’s Progress. David Pountney started it in 1975, followed by David Alden in 1982. In 1998 the honour was given to the ever-overvalued weirdo Peter Sellars who presented Amsterdam with a repulsive version of Peter Wollt-ihr-den-totalen-Wahnsinn Konwitschny-like craziness, leading to a lengthy and intense booing by the audience. For completeness I must mention that there still is an important stringent rule in Amsterdam: thou shalt not programme verismo. In comparison; in the four times The Rake’s Progress was programmed in the past fifty years, there were 0 (zero) performances of Fedora and 0 (zero) performances of Adriana Lecouvreur. If we look a little further back than 50 (!) years ago, we have to confess that those narrow-minded verismo-lovers might be whining a bit. Only recently, in 1964, we did see a performance of Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, almost immediately followed by Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier in 1966: the only one in 52 years. For comparison: in 2017 alone Andrea Chénier was programmed in some 20 cities around the world, including Munich, Paris, Rome, Berlin e tutti quanti.
This time it was up to director Simon McBurney to provide a fine twist to the The Rake’s Progress. A production from Aix-en-Provence, with the same, mainly American, soloists.
Although there is statistically little chance you never attended a Rake’s Progress, briefly the content. Lovers Tom Rakewell and Anne are confronted with Nick Shadow, who offers Tom the opportunity to make a fortune. Tom and Nick leave for London, where they seek relaxation in Mother Goose’s brothel. Nick comes up with a nice idea: Tom should marry Baba the Turk, the bearded Lady, it will make him famous! But then there is Anne, she tracked down Tom and is unhappy with the situation. Besides, Baba the Turk proves to be a pain in the ass, the reason why Nick Shadow launches a second obvious, but masterful plan. The future lies in a machine that changes stones into bread (which is secretly hidden away by the director and replaced by some dubious hassle with a child); a simple and seemingly profitable proposal. Undoubtedly, Tom will become famous now. But this is not the case, as becomes apparent in the third act: it’s opera after all! Tom is ruined and Nick wants to see some money for everything he has done for Tom. The situation is getting very unpleasant. Tom can still save himself if he can guess three cards correctly. He guesses correctly and Nick Shadow has been defeated. Before Shadow disappears into his grave, he calls for total insanity upon Tom. This works; Tom ends up in the Funny Farm, the insane asylum which was remarkably realistically put together by the director. He thinks he is Adonis – actually more of a baritone-derogation – waiting for the arrival of Venus. Anne comes to visit him and sings him asleep.
Tom wakes up, calls for Venus and breaths his last breath. In a Don Giovanni-like epilogue the protagonists sing the moral of the opera: “For idle hands/And hearts and minds The Devil finds//a work to do/a work dear Sir, fair Madam, for you and you”.
Stravinsky’s neoclassical opera follows classical Mozart-like patterns, but there is a fine portion of genuine 20th-century dissonance in it, with uncomfortable rhythms and angular vocal lines. For the enthusiast. There are – after all – also lovers of beer without foam. The prelude begins full of hope, with clarion strokes that seem to announce Ben Hur 2.0., but that didn’t happen. The soloists in this “Rake” sang competently. Paul Appleby is a fine singer with a neat voice, but didn’t completely convince us vocally in expressing the extreme emotions of Tom Rakewell’s journey: from carefree to sinful to mentally disturbed. His voice is too one-dimensional, too inflexible. Soprano Julia Bullock (Anne) with her beautiful timbre performed a little better in this respect, she provided some moving moments. Too bad her voice isn’t big enough for this role. Especially the ensembles overpowered her. We labelled Kyle Ketelsen as Nick Shadow the star of the evening. He acted in a cunning and devilish manner with the right vocal expression for every nuance in his role. He clearly was – according to us – the primus inter pares among the soloists, certainly in terms of voice. For Baba the Turk they used once again – and completely wrong but also according to the delusion of the day – a countertenor: the hilarious Andrew Watts, who turned the whole thing into a vocative unregulated buffo mess. It was a pity that Conchita Wurst had to cancel at the last moment. And when it comes to mezzo Hilary Summers as Mother Goose, we were also somewhat dissatisfied: she didn’t seem very appropriate for this role. No ‘Stravinsky-mezzo’, if at all. It was mentioned that the singers also had to present themselves on a “proscenium”, in front of the orchestra, with all the acoustic disasters that followed. Warning: don’t sit down in the front row you’ll become a victim of audience participation.
Ivor Bolton didn’t really lead the Dutch Chamber Orchestra in a Stravinsky-like manner: we missed transparency and spirited rhythmic accents. But when the choir of The National Opera sings “ruin, disaster, shame”, we think about that choir in exactly the opposite terms.
According to the programme booklet, Simon McBurney’s work is “strongly linked to music”. That seems to us to be an advantage for an opera director. The set offered the necessary visual spectacle, as did the dressage of Mother Goose and Baba the Turk with an unprecedentedly high burlesque level, but the cast was generally vocally less spectacular anyway. Director McBurney had obviously moved the opera to a contemporary setting (let’s get rid of the 18th century!), with milked and now entirely out-dated appearances out of the audience. He sees The Rake’s Progress as an indictment of the depraved stardom or Hollywood-ism. McBurney also came up with a trick; having people and objects vomit through the paper wall. 1x fun, 3x fun, but not 132 times… and for that reason probably promoted to ‘concept’. We didn’t devote any more attention to this, despite the again crazy mismatches between text and stage set (woman finds her husband in bed with a sex bomb, her reaction: “it seems you’re all alone here”. Give me such a wife any day!). On the other hand: marriages with bearded ladies and designing bread machines are absolutely booming in Hollywood. McBurney hit the nail on the head here. In any case, we were glad that the libretto of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman was not completely disfigured. In the era of ‘idle hands and hearts and minds’ directing one should be very satisfied with this. Nevertheless, despite the – for no apparent reasons – rather hysterically enthusiastic public, we could fully identify with Tom’s “I Am Exceedingly Weary”.
Until the next Rake!
Olivier Keegel (published on 2/2/2018)