English Touring Opera – Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress – Frederick Jones, Nazan Fikret & Jerome Knox; directed by Polly Graham; conducted by Jack Sheen

The Rake’s Progress – Opera in three Acts and an epilogue to a libretto by W. H. Auden & Chester Kallman after the artworks of William Hogarth [sung in English with English surtitles]

Anne Trulove – Nazan Fikret
Tom Rakewell – Frederick Jones
Nick Shadow – Jerome Knox
Father Trulove – Trevor Eliot Bowes
Baba the Turk – Lauren Young
Mother Goose – Amy J Payne
Sellem – Robin Bailey
Keeper – Masimba Ushe

Chorus & Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Jack Sheen

Polly Graham – Director
April Dalton – Set Designer
Ben Ormerod – Lighting Designer
Alex Gotch – Movement Director
Megan Rarity – Costume Supervisor

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 10 April, 2024
Venue: Oxford Playhouse

Although The Rake’s Progress is ultimately a moral fable, Polly Graham’s production doesn’t take it with too much po-faced seriousness. Rather it plays up its mordant humour by presenting it as like a cabaret, with a quirky combination of dark, gothic colour and a dash of the opera’s ostensibly 18th-century setting alongside some elements from the commedia dell’arte. The bizarre animal heads of the villagers of the opening scene at the May Day festival are like ghouls from a Bosch painting, already poised to lure Tom Rakewell to their infernal realm, before they reappear in completely black dress around a black may pole in the graveyard scene of Act Three to draw the connection. No particular setting is conjured up for Bedlam, but there is spectacle for the scenes with Baba the Turk and Mother Goose.

Vivid performances particularly create a sense of occasion. Frederick Jones inhabits the part of the rake with conviction, having essayed the role before with Glyndebourne on Tour. There are no histrionics, but he brings human fragility and pathos to the character’s downfall – the sense that ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ – and his clipped singing is reminiscent of Peter Pears. Nazan Fikret gives a generally affecting account of his fiancée, Anna Truelove, in command of the line of Stravinsky’s elaborate vocal writing for the part, but her wide vibrato is a touch squally. Jerome Knox is an affable, eloquent Nick Shadow, the Mephistophelean figure who leads Tom nefariously on in his pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. By his smooth performance vocally and on stage, Knox helps to suggest that the character is nothing more than exactly Tom’s own shadow or dark prompting from within his own conscience. Lauren Young relishes and hams up with overblown irony the rhetoric of the words given to Baba the Turk, while Trevor Eliot Bowes is aptly abrupt as the father of Anne, and Amy J Payne is a playful Mother Goose.

Jack Sheen and the English Touring Opera Orchestra do much justice to the score in the energy and enthusiasm they impart to it. Its neo-Classicism doesn’t register as artificial or pastiche here, but surges with vigour and wit that enliven it with an autonomy and authenticity all its own, although the inspiration of Mozart is always finely displayed. Satoko Doi-Luck accompanies earnestly but discreetly on the harpsichord, successfully adding the impression of a dry humour in that aspect of the music which also adopts an influence from the 18th-century but using a more wilfully divergent harmonic palette.  Performance and staging come together then in creating a balanced, lightly-worn irony as the prevailing temper of this production.

Further performances at various locations to May 28

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