Hogarth's Rake and his progress – to debt and destitution in 18th-century London – have provided the inspiration for both opera and ballet, notably in works by Stravinsky and Ninette de Valois.
But in Will Tuckett's Pleasure's Progress, the character Tom Rakewell is shoved aside by his fellow inmates in Bedlam, the infamous London asylum. They all want to relate their personal histories of misery and woe, leaving the frustrated Rake just 60 seconds near the end in which to speed-talk us through his own, in the manically abbreviated style of the three-minute Hamlet.
Tuckett can be relied on to tell a story in style, his previous work having included a Wind in the Willows that became a repeat Christmas hit, and a memorable dance-theatre version of Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale. Originally a choreographer, Tuckett's special talent is to meld elements of music theatre, movement and design into a seamless hybrid. Pleasure's Progress – produced by the Royal Opera House's ROH2 – could be billed either as opera or physical satire without telling a lie. The thread that binds them is comedy, of that scarcer-than-scarce variety that produces real belly laughs and an aching jaw.
The marvel is that such fun can be had from such grisly material. Tuckett and his librettist, Alasdair Middleton, have done their research. Not only do they draw on several series of Hogarth's etchings, but also on contemporary records of London's teeming, filthy streets, and its epic levels of alcoholism, venereal disease and infanticide. In summoning humour from the direst human tragedy, they are only being true to the satirical spirit of Hogarth.
In turn, Paul Englishby's score echoes Handelian recitative and arias, while the lyrics undermine its lush and wholesome beauty. "I pawned my baby's bottles," sings one gin-sozzled destitute, "I pawned my baby's bed. I would have sold my baby but I dropped it on its head." A gorgeously harmon-ised chorus, whose refrain runs "drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence", is sublime. As is a street-sellers' chorus built on the lines of Lionel Bart's "Who Will Buy?" from Oliver! Only here the lyricism is comically undermined by a hazelnut seller spasmodically declaiming "My nuts! My nuts!"
As ever, Tuckett has surrounded himself with a crack team. The two musicians exploit their versatility to sound like a band. And the cast – notably soprano Anna Dennis and baritone-falsetto Tom Solomon, but actually the whole cavorting, warbling pack of them – are superb. The evening also delights in the rudest lyrics and dirtiest double entendres you are likely to hear all year.
Covent Garden Piazza (free and unticketed) 9 & 10 July (020-7304 4000); Latitude Festival (020-7009 3001) 16-18 July; touring in the autumn.
Flamenco guitar king Paco Peña draws the best dancers and musicians in Spain to his side at Sadler's WellsReuse content