Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia deserves congratulations on yet another coup. The company co-commissioned Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon based on Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s celebrated Civil War epic.

Christian Gerhaher Wolfgang Rihm Wigmore Hall

For their first of two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber devised an interesting programme - popular Schubert mixed with songs by Wolfgang Rihm and by Huber himself.

Götterdämmerung in Palermo

There are not many opera productions that you would cross oceans to see. Graham Vick’s Götterdämmerung in Sicily however compelled such a voyage.

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its latest production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) featuring Renée Fleming /Nicole Cabell as the widow Hanna Glawari and Thomas Hampson as Count Danilo Danilovich.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):