Indeed, it was the visual that inspired Stravinsky in the first place. During a visit to the Chicago Art Institute in 1947, Stravinsky saw Hogarth’s eight copper engravings. He saw the potential of using the formality of early, classical opera to structure a moral fable that defies time and convention. The libretto, by W H Auden and Chester Kallman, would follow. Their libretto respected Stravinsky’s instructions to adhere to a stylised model. The syntax may be archaic, but this serves to highlight Stravinsky’s fundamental modernism. Like A Soldier’s Tale, structure belies content. Basic ideas break through as universal.
This production, designed by David Hockney, leaps in and out of one dimensional space. First we see a stage in simple black and white, like the Hogarth engravings, crudely etched in lines and cross hatching. Perspectives aren’t quite right, as in the originals. Then figures appear, their costumes reflecting the graphics. Film technology being what it is, lines flicker as the eye adjusts. Unintentionally, this serves only to underline the surreal effect of old film and old print. The further the narrative descends into inner madness, the more striking Hockney’s designs. In the auction scene the characters are shown in muted neutrals, wigs and clothes like paper cartoons. Only the auctioneer is fully coloured, for his is the role of observer. Even more striking is the remarkable staging of the madhouse scene. The asylum’s inhabitants pop in and out of boxes, like typepieces in typographers’ trays. Boundaries between real and surreal are overturned, just as the music subverts its formal constraints. Remarkably, this staging makes the voices in the chorus surprisingly human and personal, adding another element of insight.
Performances, as one would expect, are very good. Felicity Lott makes Ann Trulove memorable, slight and sentimental as the role may be. She even manages to express a parody of the role in her aria in the asylum. Leo Goeke convinces as a wholesome wastrel, but less so as a ravaged rake. Nonetheless, the plot isn’t actually “about” him so much as his inability to withstand the temptations of the world. Looking bemused is a valid part of the characterisation. The really dominant figure is Nick Shadow. Sam Ramey brings truly venomous richness to the part, his voice almost hypnotic with colour and menace. His acting is magnetic, and evocative. In the scene where he confronts Tom in the graveyard, I was powerfully reminded of his Don Giovanni. When he turns to speak to the audience, stepping out of the play into “reality”, he comes over as much more sympathetic than the thwarted lovers. Rosalind Elias, as Baba the Turk, almost steals the show. Her singing and acting are superb, and she fills the role with manic joie de vivre. She is an invention of almost divine inspiration, adding further layers of surrealism to the plot. She comes from the world of theatre where illusion rules. She’s a woman with a beard after all, whose sexual allure is supposed to make men melt. She collects the weird and wonderful with genuine gusto, while her husband has no gusto for anything. He abuses her by covering her up and trying to sell her. Symbolically, though, she revives and turns the tables. It’s not a big role in terms of time on stage, but a pivotally important one. The crowd scenes, too, are sensitively choreographed, and extremely well sung, as one would expect from Glyndebourne.
This is an extremely robust and intellectually satisfying performance. With Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, there is very fine playing. The trumpet solo at the beginning of Act Three, accompanying Lott on her wanderings is especially evocative. But it is the marriage of music and visual imagery that makes this film such a treat. The grid patterns and lines in Hogarth’s drawings seem to come to life in the staging. The play of reality and unreality on many levels brings out the dynamic interplay between classical form and modernism in Stravinsky’s score. After this apotheosis, it’s not surprising that he didn’t feel a need to top this with more of the same.