For more than 25 years Stravinsky's neo-classical morality tale The Rake's Progress has been synonymous with David Hockney's tart, smart, Hogarthian designs. Brave is the director and company that bucks the trend to recapture the arch lightness of Glyndebourne's 1974 production, but who better to challenge our expectations than English National Opera?
Director Annabel Arden's big idea – rehousing the opera in the era when it was written – is certainly audacious. But for all its visual richness Arden's transition ultimately fails. In attempting to capture an era so well documented in cinema and photography (Arden cites the photographs of Weegee as one influence) the sense of location is lost to a confusing confection of transatlantic iconography. The prologue is pure Powell and Pressburger English pastoral, but Tom Rakewell's London bachelor pad is a mid-town Manhattan high-rise. Mother Goose's brothel becomes not the Colony Room (a missed opportunity) but the kind of expensive dive that might see Rita Hayworth slowly remove her evening gloves, while the chorus is composed of two or three Marilyns, a couple of Yves Montands, and a young sailor straight out of On the Town.
Let's set aside the difficulty of aligning the dirty glamour of Weegee's America with Festival of Britain austerity, and ignore the odd touches of continental surrealism in Yannis Thavoris's designs. A more worrying aspect of this production is Arden's hefty application of forensic psychology. Sure as eggs is eggs, once a bright director starts thinking about the sexuality of a work's creator, that sexuality will be felt in the production, however exogenous it may be to the plot. And so Tom Rakewell is here revealed to be latently homosexual. Why? Because WH Auden, the librettist, was – albeit rather less latently. Unfortunately this conceit, which puts a diverting spin on the relationship between Tom (Barry Banks) and Nick Shadow (Gidon Saks), not only sits oddly with the understatement of the libretto (aren't Tom's liaisons with Mother Goose and Baba the Turk proof enough of his infidelity?) but effectively says that homosexuality is, like Tom's avarice, corrupting. And I doubt that's a statement either Arden or Auden intended to make.
So let's look at the performance. On the first night, Vladimir Jurowski's fleetingly brilliant conducting seemed too lyrical and idiosyncratic for the Coliseum's gaping maw (the live broadcast of the following performance displayed a more solid grip on the acoustic) and the orchestra seemed ill at ease. The chorus – expertly directed by Arden and beautifully lit by Paule Constable – were unnerved too by Jurowski's minimalist beat. Only the main players seemed consistent: Lisa Milne as a radiant Anne, her glowing soprano looping easily through the asymmetric gymnastics of Stravinsky's arias, tiny tenor Barry Banks an unforced, easy Tom, and the huge bass-baritone Gidon Saks a lubriciously virtuousic, brutish Shadow.
Whatever misgivings one may have about Arden's extreme characterisations – she seems to place Auden closer to Joe Orton than Noel Coward in dramatic sensibility – every detail is balletically executed, every nuance squeezed with grand guignol relish.
Lest it is not clear, this is an enjoyable and impressive production. But I cannot say I was moved or convinced by it. All in all, my feeling about Arden's Rake is that in her desire to present a subtext with contemporary resonance she has muddied the surface of the opera; hence Baba the Turk (a superbly sexy Sally Burgess) is not merely the "beard" for Tom (an absurdism for Hogarth, an in-joke for Auden) but also a metaphor for Cold War paranoia (her sedan is a Soviet space rocket) and the repression of women under Sharia law (was it just me who was struck by the overtones of Baba's silencing veil?). Deep stuff? Maybe so, but this opera is entirely about surface: that's the big joke, the grand punchline. Give the plot away too soon, make Tom's passage to degradation and madness too swift, make the plot too thick and too conspiratorial (here Shadow even controls the action in Bedlam), and the heartless tragedy of this light, bitter piece is lost. And call me old-fashioned but I don't see the 1950s as a particularly corrupt era. Go and see it anyway: it's gorgeous to look at, compelling to watch and completely wrong-headed.
Now, I've thought long and hard over what I should say about Anne-Sophie Mutter's Mozart Violin Concertos with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra. The best I can come up with is that if you honestly like hearing 18th-century music played with a uniformly thick coating of vibrato, complete inattention to the bass line, trills that start on the lower note, and cadenzas that use enharmonic progressions of a kind utterly foreign to the period of the composer, then off you go. Enjoy.
For my part, the next time I get the urge for something that sugary from Salzburg, I'll buy myself a big box of chocolate-covered marzipan.
'The Rake's Progress', English National Opera to 13 Dec (020 7632 8300); 'Mutter plays Mozart' continues tonight, Barbican EC2, 7.30pm (020 7638 8891)Reuse content