The Rake's Progress review

This review is for the Opera :
The Rake's Progress

Related Opera Company :
British Youth Opera

Venue :
Peacock Theatre

Event Description:
The Rake's Progress
Event Date : 9/9/2009

20th century opera has increasingly featured in British Youth Opera's repertoire in recent years: Britten's chamber operas, Janacek's Vixen and Dove's Flight. This is their 2nd production of Stravinsky's neo-classical 'fable', an ideal choice since the dramatic and musical challenges it sets demand experienced performers, vocally strong but not necessarily in full maturity.

Heading the cast, tenor Nicky Spence gave a completely compelling performance, combining Tom Rakewell's lazy self-centred ambition and naivety with a humour and vigour that made the character genuinely likeable - no easy task, and if you don't care about him the final scenes can be little more than gently touching. His music has an almost Bachian quality, which Spence delivered with clarity and a gradually intensifying yet ever-youthful world-weariness.

Likewise Anne Trulove, whose journey from adoration through determination to pity can often cloy, was here a fully-rounded portrayal of a believable young woman. Free of all bombast (unlike the Cardiff Singer of the World...) Rhona McKail's musical maturity and evenness of tone propelled each phrase through to make a well-contoured whole, peppered with sporadic forays into her strikingly beautiful top register.

These two strong leads did have one advantage over their colleagues: they were portraying characters of roughly their own age. Roles designed for older singers can prove challenging for a young company, but Michael Parle as Trulove demonstrated a real flair for character acting. For a man in his twenties he was an utterly convincing septuagenarian, and with a bass voice of burgeoning majesty.

Nick Shadow also needs strong delivery, particularly in his unforeseen death throes, but he is often miscast as a consistently bellowing bass. This was certainly the case at Covent Garden last year; there seems to be an general assumption that the devil must have the deepest voice, perhaps because of Gounod. Berlioz gives two sets of pitches in much of La Damnation, allowing for casting either way, but Stravinsky definitely requires a baritone, albeit not a particularly high one. With Australian Derek Welton the strength of character is in subtle temptation and manipulative suggestion rather than brute force, with a rich and persuasive tone and a soave stage presence that gave an eerie impression of complete stillness.

Both mezzos also displayed great promise: Rosie Aldridge as Mother Goose sat and lusted in the way young women never have to, and the vocal equipment matched her persona ideally. Lilly Papaioannou's Baba the Turk was sleek and seductive, vocally and visually in equal measures. Her raging plate-smashing rant, already clear and dramatic, will grow in power each time she is cast in this role; the rest is fully formed, from her initial ensemble of invisible impatience to her surprising and genuinely sincere duet with Anne.

Director William Kerley brought the action forward from the 18th century to the present day with enormous success. At turns playful, sinister and touching, and with the help of concise and colourful designs and lighting from William Fricker and David Howe, modern comic touches continually highlighted the tale's universality. So Shadow downloads Baba's photo from the internet, Tom reveals a fetching pair of Superman boxers, Anne sings "I go to him" packing a big red case with teddy bear, tennis racket and A to Z, and Baba's entourage are dark-glassed minders with mobiles in charge of her glorious pedal eco-Sedan. In fact the whole Baba sequence, a gentle satire on the nature of celebrity, updates so perfectly that it justifies the entire idea. Now Sellem the auctioneer, once a fussy functionary, is a celebrity in his own right, sung with unctuous glee and true daytime TV posturing by Paul Curievici.

The chorus of 28 fresh faces and ringing voices threw themselves into the comedy with visible and infectious joy, both as adoring fans hoping for a souvenir purchase (I loved the detail of one of Sellem's assistants cheekily throwing in an early bid) and in the May Ballish 'roaring boys and whores' scene in Act 1. Full of complex manoeuvres and revelry, only occasionally did the tight ensemble slip into brief moments of anticipation.

The only tricky update is the Act Three Bedlam (Bethlem Hospital) scene. Divorced from the comfort of distance the grotesqueries of madness in Georgian London were greatly toned down, but it was still just one notch short of troublesome. Saved by the beauty of the choral singing in a stripped-back set revealing theatre walls and props, and the sober and dependable appearance of Barnaby Rea as the Keeper, the principals were able to bring the fable to its sad end before leaping in front of the descending curtain to deliver the cheery moral, then join the rest of the cast grouped on the hospital bed.

Conductor Peter Robinson and the recently-graduated players of the Southbank Sinfonia created the perfect soundworld for this opera. Balance between pit and stage was ideal, and thanks to excellent diction from the entire cast every word of he text, by Auden and Chester Kallman, surely the most elegant of any English opera, was clear. Style was also spot on; neo-classicism doesn't do itself, as evidenced by Thomas Ades' heavy-handed Covent Garden sound. Robinson's was much more like Stravinsky's own, as recorded with the RPO fresh from Glyndbourne. Generally small-toned, neat and precise, and never over-egged, the Sinfonia played well in ensemble and as individuals, with deft counterpoints from solo 'cello and clarinets. Solo harpsichord ranged from quirkily elegant punctuations to the sustained dark mood of the card guessing duet; also in Act Three the string quartet prelude to the graveyard scene and woodwind depictions of Tom's gentle insanity were as moving as the singers.

Adam Highbury

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