Reproduced in the programme for David McVicar's Scottish Opera production of The Rake's Progress, William Hogarth's paintings Before and After (1730-31) are a bromide to those inflamed by amatory desires. In the first image, a young man woos his sweetheart in a grassy grove, both figures carefully and fashionably dressed, their kiss-curls just so. In the second, the lovers are in a state of post-coital dishevelment, his breeches undone, her underwear discarded. Were this Watteau, their faces would be flushed with pleasure. Instead, both look lost, aghast, the young man's eyes gazing into an unknowable future.
McVicar's Rake opens in a miniature 18th-century theatre, its painted backdrop echoing the secretive greens of Before and After. Inspired by Hogarth's 1735 series A Rake's Progress and written to W H Auden and Chester Kallman's pitch-perfect facsimile of a Henry Fielding satire, Stravinsky's 1951 opera has been called brittle, arch, even cold. Its tart epilogue has come in for particular criticism, not least for snapping the terrible pathos of the Bedlam scene. McVicar and his designer, John Macfarlane, play merrily with the artifice and spectacle of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, offering a brothel scene of Gilrayesque excess, but never forget the lost young man in Hogarth's After. This young man is Tom (Edgaras Montvidas). And for every flourish of vulgarity, every ghoulish memento mori, every parry of whip or dildo (all of which is as expected from McVicar), there is a gasp of sorrow only felt in his best work.
The seriousness of this Rake is quickly felt in Siâ* Edwards' meticulous conducting and the orchestra's subtle shadings. In the splintered baroque styling of Stravinsky's score, with its mustard-hot brass, spider's web recitatives and espaliered woodwind, it is the chaste strings that temper our passions and warn of Bedlam, where "Banker, beggar, whore and wit/In a common darkness sit".
Stravinsky is particularly generous to the alto range, lavishing lachrymose suspensions on the violas and the tipsy lower-voiced Whores, and making Baba the Turk (Leah-Marian Jones) the only character to combine worldly experience with a warm and sensible heart. Jones is lucky in her pert costume and chattering chimpanzee sidekicks. Saddled with an unidentifiable accent (Gorbals? 'Allo, 'Allo?) and dwarfed by udder-like false breasts and acres of fuchsia tulle, Karen Murray's Mother Goose is less sympathetic, an incomprehensible distaff accomplice of Steven Page's clipped, frigid Shadow. The Whores and Roaring Boys are a constant, moving upmarket with Tom, cheering his bankruptcy, mocking his madness, to the dismay of Carolyn Sampson's fragile, girlish Anne and her dour father, Trulove (Graeme Broadbent).
If sensation is your object, there is much to enjoy: the pretty lies of 18th- century stage machinery, the chamber pot chalice of wine, the piping pistons of Tom's bread machine, the hoodlum antics of the chimps, unflagging movement direction and choreography (Andrew George). This is an ensemble piece, created for Scottish Opera by Scots. But its heartbeat is that of the Lithuanian tenor who uninhibitedly lives Tom's infatuations, his pubescent sense of entitlement, his pride, self-indulgence and deranged, venereal shame. True, it is odd to hear this lazy, spendthrift English character's words sung in an accent popularly associated with thrift and industry. But to hear Stravinsky's music sung with such a sense of line and colour, such dash and élan, such opulence and intensity, is revelatory.
Last Glasgow performance today, 4pm; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-529 6000) 27, 29 and 31 Mar)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the LPO and Lisa Batiashvili in Mozart's Violin Concerto No 3 and Mahler's Ninth Symphony, at London's Festival Hall (Wed). At Symphony Halls, Birmingham, Andris Nelsons, Anna Vinnitskaya and the CBSO swoon in Wagner's Prelude & Liebestod, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 4 and Sibelius's Symphony No 2 (Thu).