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Rake's Progress at Opera Australia, 2006 (Photo: Branco Gaica)
18 Apr 2006

The Rake's Progress at Opera Australia

In March the Glyndebourne Opera production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight played at the 2006 Adelaide Festival. Barely a week later a second Glyndebourne production presented by Opera Australia opened at the Sydney Opera House with further performances in Melbourne at the State Theatre.

This was the famous, and now even historic, production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. First staged in 1975, the year before Patrice Chereau's centenary production at Bayreuth of the Ring heralded the era of scandalous opera production, this quirky little treat has been greeted at its many revivals and debuts at other houses like a puppy on Christmas morning. Produced by John Cox with costumes and sets by the English artist David Hockney, The Rake’s Progress has notched up thirty years continuous service, making it one of the longest serving opera productions on the circuit.

As a producer Cox never courted controversy like his contemporaries David Poultney, David Freeman or Tim Albury. In fact commentators, like singer turned critic Tom Sutcliffe, even describe him as 'discreet'. As for Hockney, as it was for Stravinsky and his librettist W.H. Auden, it was a first foray into opera. Stravinsky had written operatically styled works before but the Rake was his first true and full length opera. Auden too had one libretto to his credit, for Benjamin Britten’s quasi-opera Paul Bunyan in 1941 (that few people ever heard again when Britten withdrew it after a week and forbade further performances until 1976).

“I suppose, if you’re asking me,” you’re wanting something a bit out of the ordinary.” was Hockney's reply when Cox approached him to design The Rake’s Progress. Despite only one previous theatre design Hockney turned out to be a natural. Being an opera lover, he absorbed himself with the libretto and music. Hockney’s preferred working method was to actually design directly to music, listening to it on his Walkman. Sadly increasing deafness has ended his designing this way.

The 'discreet' Cox was hoping that as “an artist established in his own right (Hockney) would come in and use the opera as an inspiration. Naturally the director is supreme arbiter of all questions about what is seen and done, but when you invite someone like David Hockney to team up with you, you know you will surrender much of your autonomy,” he admitted.

Auden’s text had been styled on 18th century libretti and Stravinsky had used 18th century musical forms. As the original idea had come to him after seeing the paintings of the same name by the artist William Hogarth, it was only logical that Hockney re-introduce the original visual inspiration. So he began a close study of Hogarth. Cox was enthusiastic about adopting Hogarth's engraving style. “Being a 20th century utilization of an 18th century technique, it coincided exactly with the sources of Stravinsky's own musical inspiration,” he said. “In a way, it was even more exact, for Stravinsky's harmonies have an acid-etched quality, yet the first idea for the opera came from the oil paintings of A Rake’s Progress. “Stravinsky’s music,” Hockney says, “was a pastiche of Mozart and my design was a pastiche of Hogarth.” Stravinsky, incidentally, conceded only reluctantly that his score was pastiche. “The Rake’s Progress,” he wrote, “seemed to have been created for journalistic debates concerning a) the historical accuracy of the approach and b) whether I am guilty of imitation and pastiche…of Mozart, as had been said.”

Cox and Hockney's finished product is as cohesive as Stravinsky's music. Stravinsky used motifs, quoting them throughout the score as references to other characters and events as well as developing them into new situations. In the same way Hockney also links major events. The brothel scene in act one and the final scene in Bedlam are closely related as places where the hero Tom Rakewell loses, firstly, his innocence and, lastly, his reason. Similarly the room in Tom's house which figures three times, is transformed each time by significant events in his downfall. The first time it is all elegance and orderliness dominated by pink, blue and green German printer's ink colours. In the second appearance it is dominated with the black and white cross hatched junk that his wife, Baba the Turk, brings with her. Finally, when he and Baba are bankrupt and their possessions are being auctioned, it is drained of colour save for Baba's, Anne's and the Auctioneer's costumes. Hockney indicating, as Cox recalls, “that as Tom's misfortunes increase, so colour departs.”

The only major criticism against the production were the ones leveled against it in 1975. Glyndebourne historian Spike Hugues recalled “the grotesque and evil side of the opera was missing ...(and)…the scene in Bedlam was a little bewildering. The composer and librettists wrote a scene that was closely based on the horror of Hogarth’s picture, and expected it to look like it…the chorus, dressed in black with a variety of white masks, occupied a kind of egg-box (or jury-box?) which stretched from wall to wall of the set. The figures popped up into view from time to time, sang and popped down again. It was all very symmetrical and clinical, and was, I think, all going on in Tom Rakewell’s head…It certainly wasn’t in the composer’s, because he had also included a minuet in this scene to which he hoped the chorus of lunatics would dance before Tom ‘with mocking gestures’. Nobody danced …there wasn’t room.” Tom Sutcliffe pointed out that the stark black and white sets and costumes, both heavily crossed hatched to resemble engravings, hindered the performers ability to communicate or even be noticed, they “melted into the environment rather than standing out from it.”

Thirty years on the décor is now the main attraction and the eye soon adjusts to everything being cross-hatched — right down to the pebbles that Nick Shadow uses to demonstrate the bogus bread machine. And with a few minor alterations, the obvious one being the name of the conductor, Richard Hickox, painted over the spot where Bernard Haitink's once was. The sets register well, even in a bigger theatre than the old Glyndebourne. Hockney's insistence on spacing the cross-hatching correctly actually improves the look from further back. Even the garish colours aren’t showing their age. The only drawback is in the scene changes — thirty years on it is uncommon to encounter 4-minute scene changes.

This Rake’s Progress is not a difficult score to sing, play or listen to anymore and this production was originally the vehicle for some auspicious early appearances. Jill Gomez and Felicity Lott both made their Glyndebourne debuts in the soprano lead of Anne Trulove within a year of making their official debuts on any stage. Anne is still a terrific role debut, this time for Australian soprano Leanne Kenneally. Anne's big 'scene' in Act I and beautiful lullaby in the last scene are superb moments, beautifully done by Kenneally. Its a pity Tom's music is not as catchy as Anne’s and that Nick Shadow, like Don Giovanni, has hardly anything in the way of an aria proper. But Shadow is an actor-singer's role and Tom's is an all round challenge. This makes the performances by John Heuzenroeder as Tom and Joshua Bloom as Shadow ideal calling cards as they continue to establish themselves internationally.

It is the designs, however, that are best remembered; and, considering that the opera was inspired by a visual source, to be remembered for its visual appeal seems only logical.

Michael Magnusson

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