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British Youth Opera, <em>The Rake’s Progress</em> at the Peacock Theatre
07 Sep 2018

The Rake's Progress: British Youth Opera

The cautionary tale which W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman fashioned for Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, The Rake’s Progress - recounting the downward course of an archetypal libertine from the faux fulfilment of matrimonial and monetary dreams to the grim reality of madness and death - was, of course, an elaboration of William Hogarth’s 1733 series of eight engravings.

British Youth Opera, The Rake’s Progress at the Peacock Theatre

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iain Henderson (Sellem)

Photo credit: Bill Knight

 

And, the front-drop of Stephen Unwin’s production for British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre presented a fitting painterly swipe of reckless colour and some watery splashes, reminding us, in-between scenes, of the opera’s origins and of the virtuosic artifice of the composer’s and the poet’s remodelling of the past.

James Cotterill’s designs transported Tom Rakewell’s moral and material descent to the mid-twentieth century, the creators’ present, though I sensed at times a whiff of late-nineteenth century hypocrisy and degeneracy - the devil-may-care self-destructiveness of Wilde’s Dorian Gray or Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll, say.

This was a slow-burn production which on the opening night started with unfussy restraint but upped the emotional tempo towards the final scenes and closed with a touching picture of utter and irredeemable wretchedness. In fact, it all seemed a bit too discreet and decorous initially, and conductor Lionel Friend’s ponderous tempi didn’t help, though the Southbank Sinfonia’s orchestral textures were always lucid - the players seemed more comfortable in this idiom than they had been a few nights previous, in Jeremy Sams’ baroque pasticcio, The Enchanted Island - and Sam Jury’s fortepiano continuo was crisp and characterful.

Pedro Ometto (Trulove), Samantha Clarke (Anne) and Tom Workman.jpgPedro Ometto (Trulove), Samantha Clarke (Anne) and Frederick Jones (Tom Rakewell). Photo Credit: Robert Workman.

The dingy grey curtain which formed the bedraggled backdrop for the dreamy, innocent domesticity of the opening scene - Trulove’s garden being indicated by a few stray pot plants - made for a rather shabby utopian idyll, but the simplicity of design subsequently proved an asset in telling a complicated tale. Splashes of colour - crimson red for Mother Goose’s brothel, hubristic purple of Sellem’s auction - and the modulation of Mark Jonathan’s lighting from the bright light of day to the darkness of graveyard despair, and finally to washed-out pallor amid the shadowy horrors of Bedlam, did good service to the plot.

This was a Progress, though, that was rather perversity-lite. The lip-shaped velvet sofa in the Brothel did not seem likely to swallow up Tom, sucking him into debauchery, and while the array of artefacts with which Tom adorns his house effectively trod the fine line between eclectic eccentricity and trashy tastelessness, the leopard-spotting statuettes and “fantastic baroque machine”, which Shadow professes can turn stone to bread, lacked that touch of truly bizarre extravagance.

Frederick Jones (Tom Rakewell) Workman.jpgFrederick Jones (Tom Rakewell). Photo Credit: Robert Workman.

The singing was top-notch, however. I admired Samantha Clarke’s Elvira in last year’s BYO production of Don Giovanni, and she brought a similar stylishness and beguiling lyricism to her portrait of the long-suffering Anne Trulove. She was well-matched by Frederick Jones’s Rake, who retained just enough hint of ‘boy-next-door’ goodness and gullibility for his decline and ultimate demise to touch our hearts. Tom’s reflections on his love for Anne and his fears for the future bloomed warmly and the challenges of the complex vocal lines proved no problem for the tenor.

Jessica Ouston put in a star turn as Baba the Turk showing a discerning sense of well-placed dramatic details - the knowing twiddling of Baba’s laced-gloved thumbs as she waited in a man-drawn hackney for Tom’s inevitable capitulation was a deliciously cruel comic touch - and using her juicily plump mezzo to make the fairground celebrity much more than just a dramatic device.

Sam Carl (Nick Shadow) and Jones Workman.jpgSam Carl (Nick Shadow). Photo Credit: Robert Workman.

Both Iain Henderson’s Sellem and Emma Lewis’s Mother Goose might have been more outré, but the roles were confidently sung. Sam Carl’s Nick Shadow, too, displayed surprisingly understated Machiavellianism, but the seductive softness of Carl’s bass-baritone - which I enjoyed earlier this year at the Kathleen Ferrier Award Finals and in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s production of Lennox Berkeley’s The Dinner Engagement - made it easy to see why Tom was duped by Shadow’s propositions and promises, and Carl’s switch from friend to foe was sly and disturbing. Pedro Ometto (Trulove) and Thomas Mole (Keeper of the Madhouse) completed a fine cast and the BYO Chorus were in roaring voice.

There was one area of ‘weakness’ though, as there had been in An Enchanted Island. The singers’ diction lacked clarity. And, Auden’s words do deserve to be heard. By coincidence, the preceding evening had found me at Wilton’s Music Hall for ENO Studio Live’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan - Auden’s first essay at libretto writing. Interestingly, in an undated draft memoir about his collaborations with Benjamin Britten, the poet reflected: ‘It was during this period [1939-40] that Britten wrote his first opera, and I my first libretto, on the subject of an American Folk hero - Paul Bunyan. The result, I’m sorry to say was a failure, for which I am entirely to blame, since, at the time, I knew nothing whatever about opera or what is required of a librettist. In consequence some very lovely music of Britten’s went down the drain.’ Auden is perhaps somewhat too harsh on himself; there were various reasons for the operetta’s poor reception. But, certainly, his libretto for The Rake’s Progress demonstrates his mastery of the craft. The Peacock Theatre is not fitted with surtitle screens, so the singers had even more responsibility to ensure that we could appreciate the virtuosic pastiche of Auden’s literary melange, which equals Stravinsky’s musical parodies for stylistic bravura.

Despite this, the pathos of Tom’s grim fate certainly made its mark and when the cast broke the fourth wall, their moralising summation, that the Devil makes work for idle hands, effectively drummed home a lesson that had been deftly and directly delivered.

Claire Seymour

British Youth Opera: The Rake’s Progress

Trulove - Pedro Ometto, Anne - Samantha Clarke, Tom Rakewell - Frederick Jones, Nick Shadow - Sam Carl, Mother Goose - Emma Lewis, Baba the Turk - Jessica Ouston, Sellem - Iain Henderson, Keeper of the Madhouse - Thomas Mole; Director - Stephen Unwin, Conductor - Lionel Friend, Designer - James Cotterill, Movement Director - Natasha Harrison, Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan, Southbank Sinfonia, BYO Chorus.

Peacock Theatre, London; Tuesday 4th September 2018.

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