Opera: Charity cases: Edward Seckerson on Opera Factory's Rake's Progress

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The Independent Culture
Was The Rake's Progress about to fall fashion victim? Actually, news that the glam-trash designers of Hyper Hyper were consorting with David Freeman on his new production for Opera Factory, now at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, came as no surprise. Couldn't we all have second- guessed his vision of urban decay? And isn't that in itself a sign of impending middle age in any opera company? Yes and no.

Freeman's descent into the hell of inner-city life takes its cue from the underlying ferocity of William Hogarth's satirical 'Rake' paintings; and he actively resists the implicit classicism of Stravinsky's dazzling score, going straight for the jugular of its primal rhythms and hurtling narrative, quite literally spewing the piece on to the stage until all its human and material debris is well and truly dumped.

Bedlam is Cardboard City; the boxes which once housed Baba the Turk's clutter now house the dispossessed. From morality tale to social realism in one fell swoop. Until just recently the very same scene was on permanent exhibition just yards from the QEH itself.

So Freeman, as ever, hits hard. The explosive transition from rural innocence to wicked city is a typical coup. The idyllic backcloth falls away, as if the bottom of the world has dropped out, and all hell is let loose. Chairs fly, the 'Whores and Roaring boys' of London invade the stage in their punk tartans, PVC bodices and leather harnesses.

The myopic Tom Rakewell (who's traded in his specs for contact lenses) sings his beautiful cavatina 'Love, too frequently betrayed' while wandering through the delights of flagellation, fellatio, hot candle-wax, and pierced nipples. A powerful juxtaposition, although I'm not sure it concentrates the mind on the aria.

Freeman's animalistic physicality can be distracting and unfocused. And shouldn't Tom's progress through this first London scene take a more gradual curve? He's a drug abuser before we can blink. I wonder, too, why Freeman chooses to undercut the arcadian purity of Scene 1 by playing Tom and Anne so sexually hyperactive. We first see them on swings like children - puppy love. Surely they've not yet graduated from holding hands? Surely that's to pre-empt Tom's sexual induction from Mother Goose, the red-haired harlot?

No question marks hang over the musical performance. Mark Wigglesworth gives Freeman all the drive and energy that Stravinsky's rhythmic configurations (and his excellent Premiere Ensemble) can muster. Baudy bassoons and lonely-city trumpetings linger in the mind.

As Tom, Mark Tucker's pretty lyric tenor gets somewhat sacrificed to the zealousness of the staging; Geoffrey Dalton's Nick Shadow does not, thriving in all his manifestations (from country solicitor to leather-boy and clown), and Mary Plazas (Anne) is wholly enchanting, a voice at once limpid and brilliant (a terrific account of the first act aria's cabaletta) - I'm impatient to hear it again.

In a neat twist into the moralising epilogue of the opera - 'For idle hands / And hearts and minds / The Devil finds / A work to do' - Freeman has old Nick start cleaning up the stage, and each of his principals adopt a homeless person. Paradoxically, this lively company - in dire financial straits - urgently needs our charity.

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