The Rake’s Progress – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by W. H. Auden & Chester Kallman [semi-staged performance; sung in English, with English surtitles]
Trulove – Clive Bayley
Anne – Sophia Burgos
Tom Rakewell – Toby Spence
Nick Shadow / Keeper of the Madhouse – Matthew Rose
Mother Goose – Marie McLaughlin
Baba the Turk – Andrew Watts
Sellem – Kim Begley
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Matthew Rippeth – Lighting
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 3 November, 2018
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
No directorial credit was provided for the LPO’s semi-staged performance of Stravinsky’s ever-compelling opera. Whoever was responsible should take considerable credit for their suggestive, alternatively witty and chilling, deft handling of the action. There were some vivid touches such as the removal of Vladimir Jurowski’s podium to become Sellem’s auction platform, the suggestion that the harpsichord was Tom Rakewell’s open grave, the conductor’s connivance with Tom’s success in his final desperate card game, and best of all the chorus mechanics of the ill-fated “rocks to bread” machine. It was atmospherically lit as well.
The London Philharmonic was on fine form. Jurowski is very adept at clarity of texture in this repertoire. Indeed, there were some outstanding moments such as the eerie gravelly sound of the four string soloists at the start of the graveyard scene, allied elsewhere to some wonderfully mellow horn-playing and vivid woodwinds, and Helen Collyer’s harpsichord continuo was outstanding. The whole had great pace and exuberance, yet the moments of real pathos were superbly contrasted.
Every role was totally inhabited from both a vocal and acting standpoint. Marie McLaughlin as Mother Goose gave an object lesson in scene-stealing in the brothel episode. In character she greeted her clientele and dominated the stage long before she had sung a note. Kim Begley’s Sellem, a heavier voice for this role that is often heard, was a beguiling auctioneer, and Clive Bayley’s glinting bass tones made much of Trulove’s concern for Tom’s feckless nature and the effect it might have on his daughter. Patricia Bardon was to have sung Baba the Turk, and it was a surprise to learn that this part was to be sung by countertenor Andrew Watts. Surely part of the humour is that Baba is female, and it’s whether her beard is real or not that is the dramatic curiosity. Watts’s high-octane, high-power and just the right side of camp interpretation dispelled all doubts, even if one would not wish it to become the norm. He had it all – the vocal range, colour and comic quirkiness.
However, this opera is ultimately dependent on the main trio. Sophia Burgos was a lovely, if rather serious Anne. The voice has a gorgeous limpid quality in its upper reaches and a mellow lower register. She excelled in some of the tricky decorative passages and her final farewell to Rakewell showed her considerable artistry. Toby Spence brought Tom Rakewell vividly to life making one both sympathetic to his predicament and his deep-rooted respect for Anne as well as being turned off by his heartless and cavalier attitude to the lives of others. He caught the desperation of the graveyard scene and the pathos of the madhouse one. Every word was audible. The trump card was Matthew Rose’s Nick Shadow. From his first appearance from a seat in the stalls he dominated vocally and dramatically whilst interacting with his colleagues to perfection. His inflection of the text was impressive, and his physical performance was nicely judged too. Doubling as the Keeper of the Madhouse was not just luxury casting but a brilliant touch that Rose exploited to the full.
Rounding off this exemplary production was the lively contribution of London Voices, each one taking on solo interjections with aplomb and so engaged in the proceedings overall. Microphones were present.