ENO – The Rake’s Progress

The Rake’s Progress

Tom Rakewell – Barry Banks (tenor)
Nick Shadow – Gidon Saks (bass-baritone)
Anne Trulove – Lisa Milne (soprano)
Mother Goose – Rebecca de Pont Davies (mezzo-soprano)
Baba the Turk – Sally Burgess (mezzo-soprano)
Trulove – Gerald O’Connor (bass)
Sellem – John Graham-Hall (tenor)

Annabel Arden – director
Yannis Thavoris – designer
Paule Constable – lighting designer
Quinny Sacks – choreographer

Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera conducted by Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 November, 2001
Venue: Coliseum, London

Fifty years on from its world-awaited Venice premiere, The Rake’s Progress has found a secure niche in the modern operatic repertoire. Yet as the operatic sources – Mozart above all – have become more familiar to us, the nature of Stravinsky’s opera, as a moral allegory objectified in time, has perhaps become harder for latter-day audiences to grasp. It is this quality, above all, that any revival needs to reckon with, and English National Opera’s new staging does so convincingly.

Making her ENO debut, Annabel Arden has devised a production that gives us the essence of the Stravinsky-Auden/Kallman collaboration, its deadpan wit and keen pathos, without compromising its classical demeanour. Nominally set in the 1950s, the designs evoke a generalised past from an unspecific present, enhanced by the frequent placing of the chorus in loggia boxes either side of the stage, for a ’play within a play’ framework. The vivid theatrics, often in tandem with Quinny Sacks’s choreography, are a sure indication of her work as co-founder of ’Theatre de Complicité’.

Yannis Thavoris’s designs range widely in their influences, though a neo-Georgian core remains intact in even the racier aspects of the presentation. Moreover, performing the first and last scenes in front of the safety curtain, tarnished by time and experience in the latter, gives an alienating effect to the Arcady being evoked that is provocative but not needlessly interventionist.

Like the Britten chamber operas from which it may well have taken its cue, The Rake is above all a cast opera, such as benefits from the ensemble that a company such as ENO can bring. As Tom Rakewell, Barry Banks finds the tessitura occasionally hard-going, but projects a sense of naivety passing into apathy with a real appreciation of the psychology that motivates the character beyond his own reasoning. The arias at the brothel and in the madhouse pointedly mark the limits in an irreversible process of dissolution.

Gidon Saks frequently steals the show as Nick Shadow, relishing his multiple persona as advocate, confidant, companion – a homoerotic dimension made clear but not over-stated – and as a likely manifestation of Tom’s own psyche. The vocal as well as physical malevolence which he exudes in the graveyard scene is reinforced by the stark simplicity of Arden’s staging and Murray Hopkins’s trenchant harpsichord playing, while Paule Constable’s lighting adds a powerful immediacy to Nick’s climactic defeat in the card game.

Anne Trulove is a role that needs to accommodate vocal dexterity as well as purity of spirit, and what Lisa Milne lacks in the former she more than compensates for in the latter. The big scena which closes Act One is tellingly characterised, while her fateful encounters with Tom and Baba in Act Two are simply but movingly rendered. The meeting of Tom and Anne in the madhouse has a restrained and touching poignancy – the promise of Arcady fulfilled, if only in an ’other’ reality.

Sally Burgess is a model of how to convey Baba the Turk as a thinking, feeling freak of nature. Wonderfully overbearing in her arrival and attempts at domesticity, she reveals a true compassion in her exchange with Ann, made the more telling through the surreal context of the auction scene. Rebecca de Pont Davies is a stylish Mother Goose, Gerald O’Connor sure and steady as Trulove, while as Sellem, John Graham-Hall enters into the spirit of the auction with calculating abandon.

Making his ENO debut, Vladimir Jurowski displays the commitment and attention to detail that made him the preferred choice at Glyndebourne. The orchestral playing has all the required clarity and lucidity, even in the ample Coliseum acoustic, with the idiosyncratic brilliance of the word-setting admirably conveyed. The only real reservation is the somnolent tempo for the final scene, where timelessness seems to have been displaced by torpor. Radically reducing his neo-classical idiom to its essentials, Stravinsky ensures that the music makes its effect without the need for added expression or false gravitas; a failing that will hopefully be rectified in coming performances.

This is the Company’s first production of The Rake since Sadler’s Wells staging of 1962. In reaffirming the human insight and theatrical potency of Stravinsky’s only full-length opera, it must be counted a considerable success.

  • Further performances on December 6, 8, 11, 13 & 15
  • Box Office: 020 7632 8300
  • www.eno.org

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