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Reviews

07 Nov 2018

The Rake’s Progress: Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is not, in many ways, a progressive opera; it doesn’t seek to radicalise, or even transform, opera and yet it is indisputably one of the great twentieth-century operas.

The Rake’s Progress: Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Vladimir Jurowski

Photo credit: Simon Jay Price

 

It may look back to Handel or Mozart, especially in its slightly archaic use of recitative that is woven throughout the opera, but it remains a very distinctively Stravinskian work: that dark, richly chromatic string quartet which opens the prelude to the churchyard scene, and how it atmospherically sounds so sepulchral and sparse, could in many ways have only come from the pen of Stravinsky.

But this is opera as morality play too. Inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a series of paintings and engravings from 1733-5, it’s a parable of a young rogue in search of wealth and love but ultimately led astray by the Devil and into insanity. Stravinsky was probably wise to retain the setting of his opera to London because atmospherically it is just so right. Hogarth was particularly adept at objectifying madness - but Stravinsky had a whole pool of artistic influences to draw on extending back to Bosch, and looking beyond Hogarth to the work of Géricault, Goya, Fleury and Richard Dadd, who spent much of his life incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals - and even to the novels of Dickens. But Stravinsky is nothing if not a touch indebted to allusion because his Rake’s Progress is also a much wider allegory on the decline of western culture. It’s perhaps for this very reason that he suggested that this opera is difficult to stage, but musically rather simpler to perform. This was probably why the London Philharmonic’s concert performance, given in a subtle semi-staging, worked as well as it did.

Stravinsky’s music, of course, is just half of what makes this such as exceptional work; the libretto, by W H Auden and Chester Kallman, is also one of the great operatic texts. It’s not a coincidence that the greatest librettos come from the pens of writers who happened to be great poets - John Dryden, Hugo von Hoffmanstahl - and Auden. Not all of Auden’s text is metrically, or even rhythmically, musical to be honest and it probably takes a conductor like Vladimir Jurowski - whose clear beat and ability to unpeel the layers of chromaticism in the music - make this even more apparent. At times the libretto sounds a little old fashioned; but it also soars to a level of inspiration and poetry that recalls TS Eliot in lines like: ‘Although I do not hope to turn again/Although I do not hope/Although I do not hope to turn’. Lines rhyme sparingly - but this was always an Auden characteristic.

The LPO’s performance of Stravinsky’s opera was simply magisterial. From the opening fanfare on trumpets and horns, to a quartet of oboe, cor anglais and two bassoons Jurowski set the tone of what was to largely become hallmarks of this performance: elegant phrasing, with woodwind and brass playing in stanzas, precisely as a great opera orchestra should, and individual instrumental solos (notable ones on horn, trumpet and cello) which spoke so wonderfully and poetically with the inflexions of a voice. Even something as simple as the pattering of semiquavers on strings were given the benefit of a scale that went way beyond the mere orchestral. A really notable feature of the performance was the superb harpsichord playing - it shifts between major and minor keys, but the effect was quite magical. If it was staged in such a way as to look like a grave, musically the playing conjured up a scent of creeping oppressiveness, but also of skeletal fragility and horror. The Bedlam scenes were brooding and powerful - unleashed by Jurowski with chords that were given the broadest of brush strokes culminating in a ‘Mourning Chorus’ that was steeped in graphically resonant playing from bassoons, brass and timpani.

Vocally, there was much to cherish in this performance. Certainly the most interesting piece of casting was Andrew Watts (replacing Patricia Bardon) as Baba the Turk. If this changed the concept of the bearded lady into something more homoflexible, even transgendered, it was a welcome one. Watts was the right side of camp - but it was also entirely in keeping with how this vision of London, a more modern, perhaps less Hogarthian one, was being projected too. Vocally, it was a terrific performance - drenched in risky humour, but the trills, and runs, were given to resemble a nagging ‘wife’ wonderfully. He launched into his aria ‘Scorned! Abused!’ with unusual venom - it was both powerful and dramatic - the fury unrepressed, resorting to tearing up what looked like a music score and throwing it around in anger. Tom simply covered his head with a tablecloth.

There was also much to enjoy in Sophia Burgos’s Anne Trulove. The voice is a rich one, deeply expressive, but entirely capable of meeting the demands of Stravinsky’s writing for the soprano part. Her Cabaletta at the end of Act I was truly memorable - a declaration of love for Tom that was shining in its vocal brilliance and elegant phrasing and a ringing high C to end. If there is a criticism, it’s that she sometimes felt just a little too fragile and you didn’t always feel her love for Rakewell was quite worth pursuing. Her Act III Lullaby sounded just a touch weary too. Marie McLaughlin’s Mother Goose - if vocally having little to do - proved something of a scene stealer. The brothel scene was a tour de force of dramatic intervention, as Mother Goose evocatively flirted with the orchestra and the choir (the superb London Voices), as well as Jurowski, and the whole scene was brimming with humour.

A great Rake’s Progress, however, turns on the casting of Tom Rakewell and his Shadow, Nick. And this is what we got here. The apotheosis and climax of this interaction happens in the graveyard - it is a resolution that is haunted by menace, and one where Tom comes to recognise the despair and hopelessness which will be his lot, and his Shadow refuses to release him from his torment. Fate comes to rest on a card game - on chance - though it is one that is to ultimately precipitate Rakewell’s descent into madness. Toby Spence (as Tom) and Matthew Rose (as Nick Shadow - and, in a clever piece of dual casting, as the Keeper of the Madhouse) were superb. Spence brought vulnerability and gullibility to his Rakewell; Rose, a sinister flourish of menace. If you feel at the beginning of the opera there is something slightly reminiscent in this relationship to that of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Leporello it has become transformative by Act III. The achievement of Spence and Rose was that they brought such wonderful symbiosis to their parts.

Stravinsky had always been pragmatic about the problems of staging this opera and in this concert performance much relied on creating a sense of atmosphere rather than attempting to place it in the context of the opera’s drama. Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting was in some ways quite extravagant - it could be both impressively wide, taking in whole swathes of the stage - or it could do quite the opposite focusing on individual singers, or even individual orchestral players. Off stage voices were just as important as those on stage - Nick Shadow first emerged from the stalls. In every sense this was a performance which had a deep sense of how sound should be used to create operatic effect and emotion.

This was a memorable performance - and with microphones present was recorded.

Marc Bridle

Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress

Tom Rakewell - Toby Spence, Anne Trulove - Sophia Burgos, Nick Shadow - Matthew Rose, Baba the Turk - Andrew Watts, Father Trulove - Clive Bayley, Sellem - Kim Begley, Mother Goose - Marie McLaughlin, Keeper of the Madhouse - Matthew Rose, Whores, roaring boys, servants, citizens, madmen - London Voices; Conductor - Vladimir Jurowski, Lighting Designer - Malcolm Rippeth, Costume - Kitty Callister, London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Royal Festival Hall, London; 3rd November 2018.

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