If opera makes you nervous, start here

The Rake's Progress | Glyndebourne Festival Opera Jessye Norman | Proms, Royal Albert Hall
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The Independent Culture

When David Hockney's witty, pretty, cross-hatched production of The Rake's Progress first opened in 1975, I was making farmyard animals out of sugar-paper with my best pair of round-ended scissors. Twenty-five years is a long time - even in the 400-year life of this most hit and miss art-form - but this Rake is a classic, and in a revival that boasted strong leads, sharp conducting and superlative chorus work, it was Hockney's scenery that stole the show.

When David Hockney's witty, pretty, cross-hatched production of The Rake's Progress first opened in 1975, I was making farmyard animals out of sugar-paper with my best pair of round-ended scissors. Twenty-five years is a long time - even in the 400-year life of this most hit and miss art-form - but this Rake is a classic, and in a revival that boasted strong leads, sharp conducting and superlative chorus work, it was Hockney's scenery that stole the show.

The production looked crisp as cotton; the colours perfectly balanced, the monochrome auction scene breathtaking, the profusion of Hogarthian artefacts as exciting as a pillowcase full of Christmas presents (with enough anachronistic in-jokes to keep any art historian chuckling), and the Cubist grotesquerie of Bedlam deftly poised between horror and humour. Could Hockney's Rake have been Glyndebourne's insurance policy against the grungily provocative post-postmodern gestures of this season's Mozart trilogy? The only possible downside to all this pleasure - and what a tight-lipped sourpuss you'd have to be to be at all offended by it - was that the audience's delight in the scenery was so enthusiastically expressed as to obscure some of the music. But how often do you go to an opera where people are genuinely entertained to such a degree that they cannot restrain their applause?

For anyone who is nervous of opera, Auden and Stravinsky's sophisticated pantomime is a perfect place to start. One of The Rake's Progress's major charms is that it is in no way an "important" opera (Stravinsky had been experimenting with neo-classicism for a good 10 years before the intrinsically playful Rake); it is a cleverly accessible confection of satire, style and self-consciousness. The libretto is in English, no one sleeps with their immediate family, there's no sexism or racism (even the Federation of Hirsute Turkish Ladies should be mollified by the sympathetic portrayal of Baba), there are plenty of jokes, no one sings the same words over and over again unless ironically, and - gasp - there are tunes. For all the nods at Mozart, his predecessors, and even Russian operatic traditions, The Rake's Progress was written against the slickly melodic contemporary cultural backdrop of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Gershwin brothers. I'd hazard a guess that if you like Sondheim, Bernstein or even Cabaret, you'd enjoy this.

The cast was vibrant, the quintet of the epilogue as creamily blended as the finest a capella group. To her great credit, the marvellous Susan Bickley looked, and frequently sounded, totally ridiculous as Baba the Turk. So what if her accent sounded like Dr Ruth after a few years in Glasgow? Her raging, wild top notes and dirty growl of a chest voice raised hairs and knocked her insipid husband Tom for six. Rosemary Joshua as Anne gave a sweet-natured, fully engaged performance, her voice neatly connected to body and text. Gerald Finley in the meantime was a highly subtle Nick Shadow. Finley has played a long game with his gleaming, metallic baritone voice, developing its power and range steadily over the last decade, and he is now reaping the rewards of that careful work. Shadow's strangeness was shown in off-timed gestures; standing slightly too close in dialogue, echoing the gestures of his mortal pawns a little too late or a little too long, as though studying a humanity alien to his nature. His presence was unsettling, erect and watchful, and far more sinister than any amount of villainous loping.

As Finley and Joshua were so good - and Bickley, Stafford Dean (Trulove) and Nuala Willis (Mother Goose) an excellent supporting cast - it made life harder for Richard Croft as Tom. All the necessary elements were there - the super-sweet crooning, the feckless innocence, the foppish boredom, and the awful regret for what he has lost through his Faustian pact with Shadow - but they failed to cohere. Perhaps it was the distracting tennis-player's grunt that popped out at the end of his higher, louder phrases, or perhaps it was the lack of middle ground between soft and loud. I found myself wondering how the production might have gone with John Mark Ainsley as Tom; and had Croft been truly convincing, I wouldn't have had time to play fantasy opera.

Mark Elder and the LPO were on terrific form. Elder's direction is so characterful and stylish that the odd bumpiness in the tempi scarcely matters. Even in the graveyard scene, as Tom and Shadow play cards for Tom's life to the accompaniment of the insane, beautiful harpsichord solo, Elder was on the case, scooping more and more miserable regret from Tom's recitative. There's hardly room here to cover the chorus work, but they were magnificent; fresh of voice and energetically responsive to the excellent direction of John Cox. This was Glyndebourne at its finest, and you can forgive all the hidden costs in bar-tariff and programmes and sub-standard Mozart for this one delightful production - which was, I suppose, the point.

Another Seventies great made a rare appearance at the Proms with the London Sinfonietta last week. It's hard to believe that Jessye Norman's benchmark recording of the Strauss Four Last Songs was made in 1974, and all the harder when you see her in the flesh - warm, gracious, vibrant and as commanding as a benevolent dictator. Norman looked astonishing; her long hair straightened into a luxuriant, glossy mane, a lime-green crushed silk and paper stole draped around her proud frame. And her voice - though less lustrous at the very top than in the past - is still so abundant and rich at the core.

The centrepiece of the concert was the British premiÿre of Judith Weir's woman.life.song. The title gave some cause for concern; were these dots (as in dotcom) or periods (as in American punctuation)? Given that the three lyricists of the song cycle were Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Clarissa Pinkola Estés (author of Women who Run with the Wolves), I had been dreading some awful paean to menstruation and the moon cycle. Instead, the three poets drew a touching and accurate picture of the confusions of puberty, the first tentative assumption of mature sexuality and - most movingly - the loss of one's mother. The simple repetitive banalities of caring, and the permanent painful struggle of babyhood versus adulthood that mark and wear this profound relationship were lovingly, respectfully and unflashily painted in an extended, sparsely accompanied elegy.

woman.life.song begins with a declamation that is closer to the Brooklyn Heights rap-poetry of Dana Bryant than the recitative of the opera house. Weir's music draws happily from popular forms - the silky swing of Brazilian jazz, the slow back-beat of soul - with some marine ripples of Ravel for good measure, and generously gives the poetry centre-stage. It's some measure of Norman's artistry that she was utterly convincing as the flat-chested pubescent girl longing for womanly shape. But the greatest achievement was that she brought the combined talents of Weir, Pinkola Estés, Morrison and Angelou together to create this thoughtful, mature piece.

'The Rake's Progress': Glyndebourne (01273 813813), to 26 August

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