CLASSICAL: The Rake's Progress Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
In July 1951, Schoenberg died in Hollywood, where he'd lived close to Stravinsky for years without the two ever meeting. Two months later, Stravinsky conducted the premiere of The Rake's Progress. Causally unconnected, these events each signalled an ending for Stravinsky. With Schoenberg dead, serialism took on a historical aspect, which made it available to Stravinsky after, with The Rake's Progress, he bade a fond farewell to neo-classicism. So complete is the opera's neo-classicism that at times it doesn't sound neo at all, but the real thing. No doubt that's one reason why Stravinsky had to move on, and why, for a post-war opera, it has been so successful: close your eyes and think of Mozart. Still, it's not core repertoire, and last Saturday the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC SO) drew a large and enthusiastic audience for what was billed as a concert performance.

Yet this presentation had more genuine theatricality than many full-scale productions. At each side of the platform an easel displayed a child's vivid scrawls, quickly changed to mark the shifting scenes; and singers emerged on cue from the wings, as in a staged performance, and sang without score, which allowed plenty of dramatically illuminating interplay. No one was credited with this "production", but since it several times included the conductor Andrew Davis in the action (once to proffer Babar's beard, another to sing a single line), it seems likely he was involved. Well, given that he's Glyndebourne's musical director, he should have some idea how opera works. Sometimes when concert performances allow the singers to abandon platform decorum, the results remain stiffly formal. Here, the natural ease spoke of detailed and thoughtful preparation.

The opera's diabolism may reek more of cigar smoke in a gentleman's club than of the rank sulphur of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, but it still produces an agreeable frisson that William Shimell's sharply characterised Nick Shadow amplified to seismic proportions. This was the Devil as Don Giovanni, leading Barry Banks' cherubic Tom Bakewell a merry dance. Banks' light and direct tenor has something of the operetta about it, and he made Tom a malleable weakling utterly unable to resist his descent into dementia. And that despite the loving attentions of Joan Rodgers' Anne, displaying more vibrato than I remember from this gifted singer, but always sweet-toned and touching. With Jane Henschel a mostly unbearded Babar of Wagnerian dimensions and Robin Leggate rendering auctioneer Sellem as oily as any estate agent, to say nothing of strongly cast support in smaller roles, this was a superbly sung Rake.

With such vivid performances in front of them, it's no surprise that the players of the BBC SO rose to the occasion. Andrew Davis's enjoyment is infectious, and the horns and trumpets blared acridly against the insinuations of bassoons, clarinets and oboes, while the strings motored away furiously. Housed at the rear like prisoners awaiting trial, the BBC Singers played their part enthusiastically. The Rake's Progress, sometimes a glittery paste jewel, here emerged as profound, witty and moving.

This performance will be broadcast on Radio 3, 7.30pm Wednesday