The Royal Opera – The Rake’s Progress

The Rake’s Progress – Opera in three acts to a libretto by W. H. Auden & Chester Kallman [Sung in English, with surtitles]

Tom Rakewell – Toby Spence
Ann Trulove – Rosemary Joshua
Nick Shadow – Kyle Ketelsen
Baba the Turk – Patricia Bardon
Trulove – Jeremy White
Mother Goose – Frances McCafferty
Sellem – Graham Clark
Madhouse-keeper – Jonathan Coad

Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Ingo Metzmacher

Robert Lepage – Director
Sybille Wilson – Revival director
Carl Fillion – Set designs
François Barbeau – Costume designs
Etienne Boucher – Lighting design
Boris Firquet – Video designs
Michael Keegan-Dolan – Choreography
Rachel Poirier & Milos Galko – Revival choreographers

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 January, 2010
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell. Photograph: Johan PerssonA welcome revival of The Royal Opera’s recent production (only its second such staging) of “The Rake’s Progress”. Sybille Wilson had made few changes to Robert Lepage’s treatment – with its premise of presenting the opera in a context of the early 1950s American culture out of which it emerged. This is for the most part convincing – intriguing parallels thrown up between eras two centuries apart as with those who peopled them. That much of the opera is set in London does involve a shifting of conceptual goal-posts, but the evocations seldom seemed inappropriate while Lepage’s adroit use of video imagery underscored the increasing non-realism of words and music.

As to the revival cast, Rosemary Joshua evinced few audible signs of the throat infection from which she was suffering, while her vocal poise and intelligent characterization as Anne would have seemed the more so had not Sally Matthews conveyed such empathy and compassion first time around. As Tom, Toby Spence overcame his initial tendency to overact – ably suggesting (arguably more so than Charles Castronovo) the dissatisfaction and latterly desperation of a figure who by rights should command little sympathy. Kyle Ketelsen had the deadpan humour and acute malevolence that were right for Nick Shadow – for all that his overall projection of character and, during the climactic graveyard scene, his implacability of tone were generally to be wanting in comparison with that of John Relyea.

Kyle Ketelsen as Nick Shadow & Frances McCafferty as Mother Goose. Photograph: Johan PerssonJeremy White far surpassed Darren Jeffrey is his warm-hearted portrayal of Trulove, as did Frances McCafferty that of Kathleen Wilkinson as a Mother Goose of stature. Patricia Bardon was once more at-one with Baba the Turk in suggesting the innate humanity of someone marked out as a human ‘freak show’, with Jonathan Coad again a sympathetic madhouse-keeper, but Graham Clark’s edgy and over-active Sellem yielded to the knowing camp of Peter Bronder. The Royal Opera Chorus dispatched its roles from nouveau riche guests to asylum inmates with just an occasional untidiness of ensemble.

The biggest change came with the conducting. Unfairly taken to task as Thomas Adès sometimes was, he could be no match for Ingo Metzmacher in terms of that cumulative urge that propels the action forward in order for what might seem a judicious assemblage of set-pieces to become a powerful dramatic continuity. Tempos, often swift though never inflexible, were rarely less than well judged – superbly so in the scene of Mother Goose’s unveiling and also a graveyard setting in which the music’s astounding motivic and textual ingenuity were there to be savoured. The theatrical pay-off of the closing ensemble had just the effervescence required (is it inevitable that those final instrumental bars be wholly drowned out by applause?), while the scene in the asylum had a distanced emotional pathos that never risked becoming weighed-down with superfluous emotion or unwarranted tragedy.

This was opera conducting of a high order (hardly a surprise given his track-record in Hamburg and Amsterdam) and Metzmacher, who effectively held together “Die tote Stadt” on his Royal Opera debut here, will hopefully return to Covent Garden on a regular basis. For now, this revival of “The Rake’s Progress” is worth catching.

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