The Rake's Progress, Garsington Opera, Oxford
Tuesday 24 June 2008
There was something surreal about the gilded proscenium stage in the courtyard of Garsington Manor; still more about the formally attired gentleman silently emerging from between its red, crushed-velvet curtains.
Who was he? And what was this "entertainment" he and his bowler-hatted, pinstriped assistants were about to unveil? As the band struck up with Stravinsky, it became clear that the Devil was in our midst.
We'd be seeing more of Nick Shadow and those Magritte-like City figures. One of the delicious ironies of staging this opera in a country setting is that in the second scene we leave for the Big Smoke for good. In Olivia Fuchs's terrific production, the tiny stage is dressed like a bucolic parody, only to have the roaring boys and whores of London rip it apart and spirit us to punk hell for Tom Rakewell's arrival in the capital of self-indulgence.
And how telling that the beer-swilling, fornicating punks then transform into a legion of City traders. Coke-sniffing Rakewell is simply one more oik when it comes to spending his new-found wealth. And it's never been clearer that he marries the freak-show star Baba the Turk (Susan Bickley) for the publicity. And to finance his habit.
Nudging him gently down the slippery slope to ruin was our master of ceremonies, Nick Shadow, superbly realised by Christopher Purves in one of the best performances I've seen in the role. His physical and vocal presence made it totally credible that Rakewell should hang on his every word. He landed every syllable with lethal precision. And his over-familiar tactility towards his charge made the betrayal all the more chilling.
Robert Murray gave Rakewell the energy, stamina and puppy-like trust that the role demands. For all his arrogance, we must have pity for his downfall. The extraordinary lullaby of farewell to Tom by Sinéad Campbell as Anne Trulove had a chaste beauty heightened by Fuchs's outstanding chorus work, which made something moving and poetic of the harrowing denouement in Bedlam.
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