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Reviews

24 Jun 2019

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

The Rake’s Progress: Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh Festival 2019

A review by David Truslove

Above: Barbara Hannigan

Photo credit: Musacchio Ianniello

 

On the way he discards the ever faithful and appropriately named Anne Trulove and succumbs to the temptations of Nick Shadow in the guise of the devil whose news of a windfall inheritance catapults Tom to a dissolute life in London where he marries the bearded Baba-the-Turk, plunges into a financially ruining bread-making scheme and, after defeating his alter ego at cards, dies grieving for his beloved Anne in an asylum.

Grim stuff, but it’s an opera suited to the talents of young singers who in this case were hand-picked musicians belonging to Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists - a mentoring initiative for young professional musicians created in 2017 and here at Snape making their UK debut. This Rake’s Progress was the grand finale of a series of European performances which had been launched in Sweden at the end of last year. The production has been a semi-staged affair from the start and any potential issues over balance and space that might have been perceived in advance at Snape (where all the players and singers occupy a single performance area) were immediately dispelled. That said, Linus Fellbom’s directorial note in the programme book indicating the use of a performing ‘box’ (used in earlier outings) had to be ignored; this production left the performers free rein to use the stage directly in front of the orchestra. Of course, much was left to the imagination so that Mother Goose’s brothel and Sellem’s junk-filled auction were left to the mind’s eye. But with acting and singing as distinguished as this, there was little needed in the way of visual signposting to hold the ear and eye. Without pauses for scene changes the action rattled along with obliging swiftness.

That’s all credit to Hannigan (whose opera conducting debut this is) and Fellbom who, in the absence of any set and props (not forgetting much atmospheric lighting) provided sharply defined characters helped by some thoughtfully conceived costumes - Tom ironically dressed in ‘pure’ white and everyone else, including the innocent Anne, chorus and on-stage orchestra, clad in funereal black with gender fluid overtones for Shadow, whose culotte-like trousers might as well have been a skirt.

The cast was led by the young Welsh tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas as the feckless Tom, whose brightly lit tone swept through the score from the opening duet through to “death’s approaching wing”. Able to command facial expression with ease, whether shame, frustration or child-like naivety when incarcerated in Bedlam, Thomas gave a truly persuasive portrait and his attempt to define love was particularly touching. There was no lack of chemistry between him and Greek soprano Aphrodite Patoulidou as a pure-toned Anne Trulove. Notwithstanding a slightly pressured Act 1 ‘Quietly night’ (here just slightly too fast to be as poignant as it can be), her Cabaletta had just the right steely determination and her closing lullaby, ‘And no word from Tom’, wonderfully tender, its heartbreak delivered the evening’s emotional climax.

Guadalupen-born Yannis Francois gripped throughout as the flamboyant Nick Shadow, a gentlemen’s gentleman whose ample baritone and insidious presence peaked in a compellingly wrought card game. Of the remaining cast, Fleur Barron was a generously hirsute and idiosyncratic Baba the Turk, James Way a confident man-about-town Sellem and Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel doubled as a timid but sympathetic Father Trulove and androgynous Mother Goose. A meticulously prepared chorus excelled as whores and roaring boys, auction bidders and madmen, and strikingly taut instrumental support came from the Ludwig Orchestra whose players (including Edo Frenkel on the harpsichord) brought much luminous detail to Stravinsky’s chugging rhythms and spiky outlines - the whole dispatched with Mozartian clarity. Praise too must be heaped on Hannigan whose incisive direction and unflagging pace electrified from the start, her minimal gestures sparking life into those opening fanfares and her keenly sensitive ear securing an ideal balance between her vocal and instrumental forces. In short, Hannigan and Fellbom nailed this unstaged Rake to release its emotional energy with dramatic power. Among the outstanding singers of Equilibrium are stars in the making.

David Truslove

Tom Rakewell - Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Anne Trulove - Aphrodite Patoulidou, Nick Shadow - Yannis Francois, Baba the Turk - Fleur Barron, Sellem - James Way, Father Trulove / Keeper of the Madhouse/Moose Goose - Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel, Director/Design/Lighting - Linus Fellbom, Conductor - Barbara Hannigan, Ludwig Orchestra & Chorus of Opera Holland Park.

Snape Maltings Concert Hall; Thursday 20th June 2019.

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