The Rake's Progress

To the madhouse

The ruin of Hogarth's anti-hero is a story for our times

The Rake's Progress
Royal Opera House, London WC2

With debt and ruin all around, no opera could be more timely than The Rake's Progress, by Stravinsky and W H Auden. The original production dates from 1951, four years after Strav­insky had visited an exhibition of Hogarth's painting sequence that shows the moral disintegration of a 20-year-old in the lascivious fleshpots of 18th-century London. To fit the setting, Stravinsky composed a classical-era pastiche with gently jarring dissonances, jovial wind instruments, elegant strings and harpsichord-accompanied recitatives.

This time, the rake, updated by Robert Lepage, is a 1950s innocent from the American Midwest who makes it big in the movies. Tom Rakewell inherits a cash windfall from an uncle and buys himself a Hollywood career. London is thus rendered as a film set - and just as shallow. The tenor Toby Spence sings Rakewell at first a little overenthusiastically, upsetting the focus of his tone in the thigh-slapping early moments. He becomes more lyrical and appreciative of Stravinsky's angular melodic line once he arrives in London.

Rakewell's forlorn musing on the nature of love - "That precious word is like a fiery coal/It burns my lips, strikes terror to my soul" - and his sorry recollection of his girl back home are moving. The cancan chorus line swoons in ironic sympathy.

That girl is Anne Trulove, sung brightly by the soprano Rosemary Joshua with an appealing simplicity that both wins the audience's heart and emphasises Tom's folly. It is her aria to the moon that persuades us early on that this is not just a sanctimonious morality tale about a cad, but a story of selfless love. Hogarth depicts her only in the shadows, but Stravinsky and Auden place her centre-stage. She emerges as the hero, the cathartic element that allows hope to flourish as Tom descends into madness, the victim of his own delusions. Joshua lives up
to the demands even as she races, silently and impulsively, to her paramour's aid, scarf flying with the speed of her open-topped sports car,
a lonely trumpet echoing tortured phrases that Auden brilliantly put into her mouth.

The poet's verses are never clumsy. "Many insist/I do not exist/At times I wish I didn't," sings the bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen as the leering, menacing, hollow-eyed devil Nick Shadow. His top volume remains rich and his diction is the clearest of any on stage. The tenor Graham Clark (as the auctioneer Sellem) comes on with a cartwheel, which is impressive for an opera singer, especially as he immediately proceeds to sing out, only a little breathlessly, the lots of the now-ruined Tom's possessions. Tom, the gullible chap, has invested in a machine that turns bricks into bread - an obvious hoax to most, but the desperate are always suckered by wild schemes. (At this point, one sensed a squirming among opera-loving fund managers in the audience.)

The versatile chorus makes a delectable crowd in the orgy and the auction scenes, and a nightmarish rabble when we reach the madhouse. For all their numbers, however, the performers rarely sing at full throat and one misses the thrilling fortissimo of a large choir. The conductor, Ingo Metzmacher, keeps the action moving along swiftly, although there is a tendency with some of the cast to equate speed with excitement. Yet these are mere quibbles. The Rake's Progress is a great work, both harrowing and uplifting - and very much one for our times.
In repertory until 3 February.

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This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven