The Rake's Progress, Royal Opera House, London<br/> Blank Canvas, 93 Feet East, London

Even witty, cinematic sets can't inject life into a flat production that needs London's sulphurous streets to make the satire sing
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The Independent Culture

'Ruin, Disaster, Shame!" The great choral cry of the Crowd of Respectable Citizens at the start of Act III of The Rake's Progress has never seemed so apposite. Lauded in Brussels, Lyon and San Francisco, Canadian director Robert Lepage's lavish Hollywood-and-Vegas staging was always going to be a hard sell in Hogarth's home town. In a year when everyone is feeling the pinch, a hi-tech, low-energy, wide-screen Rake is simply perverse.

As purse-strings tighten and house sales plummet, Stravinsky's opera seems less a Mozartian conceit than a map of modern folly. Periwigs and panniers are no more a prerequisite for a successful Rake than is a large production budget. Annabel Arden had Sputniks and pea-soupers in her English National Opera production, while Tim Carroll's thrifty Royal College of Music staging was a Powell and Pressburger fantasy of 1950s archetypes. Last month, Olivia Fuchs brought the drama kicking and screaming into the rude 1980s, dressing her Respectable Citizens in cocaine and pin-stripes for Garsington Opera.

Hogarth's satire is infinitely adaptable in time. But unless you are prepared to rewrite the libretto – "Vary the song, O Vegas, change!" anyone? – the setting must be London: dirty, capricious and crowded.

Here Tom (Charles Castronovo) is a cowboy-turned-film-star, Nick Shadow (John Relyea) a laconic director-producer. The Arcadian idyll of Act I is played out on the vast oil-fields of Giant, Mother Goose's brothel references Destry Rides Again, Anne Trulove (Sally Matthews) is styled after Debbie Reynolds, Baba the Turk (Patricia Bardon) is briefly silenced in a Sunset Boulevard swimming pool, and Bedlam is modelled on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Carl Fillion's designs are handsome, expensively engineered, often wittily detailed. But cinematic sets are not enough to sustain what is a curiously sterile piece of theatre.

Along with losing a sense of place, Lepage has lost the opera's sulphurous snap and crackle. It's not a careless production but it is one that is careless of the score and counterintuitive in its use of space.

A film director can control the audience's view-point, zooming in to a close-up, pulling back to reveal the landscape. Here the characters remain remote. Scenes that are as pungent and populous as the streets of Hogarth's era are as motionless as an abandoned movie lot, while the personenregie, to use that wonderfully specific German term for the direction of people, seems to have stopped with François Barbeau's costumes. Though the orchestral textures are crisp and tart, Thomas Adès's tempi are cautious, the chorus is slack, and the singing, with the exception of Castronovo's light, lyrical Tom and Matthews's ardent Anne, bland.

Like Tom Rakewell's bread machine, this Rake is a bad investment. Especially when you consider what other directors have achieved on far tighter budgets.

Weary of Hollywood and hungry for London, I headed off to Brick Lane, where pianist Will Dutta, The Elysian Quartet and were hosting Blank Canvas: an informal evening of classical, contemporary and experimental music of the type I remember happening in Manhattan more than a decade ago.

There's an inevitable awkwardness to any situation in which you feel obliged to relax, particularly if you can't hear the music. But what started out as a rather earnest exercise in playing Debussy's Préludes to an aleatoric accompaniment of cash registers, popping corks and air-conditioning became a lot more enjoyable when The Elysian Quartet performed Dominic Murcott's witty Installation for String Quartet. I don't know whether spending an evening listening to a minimalist multimedia string quartet counts as "leading the classical uprising", or whether there needs to be a classical uprising at all. Nonetheless, it was fun.

'The Rake's Progress'

(020- 7304 4000), to 18 Jul

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