Victory for sound over vision

Welsh National Opera gives a performance of The Rake's Progress which survives the director's Big Idea.
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The Rake's Progress goes into dark corners and deals in disorder and deception, illusion and disillusion, which isn't particularly classic subject matter. This is not me on Stravinsky's Hogarth opera, but Matthew Warchus, whose new production for Welsh National Opera opened in Cardiff on Saturday. Has he never come across Aeschylus or Don Giovanni? But the remark is essentially an excuse, because Warchus time travels with Auden and Kallman's "18th-century England", starting in the 1730s but advancing through the 19th century and landing with a bump at Passchendaele for the graveyard scene. It's one of those ideas one wishes had been left at the dinner table where it probably originated. Obviously the point about The Rake is that it uses an 18th-century setting to make 20th-century points - and that applies to the music too. So there's no visual gloss needed: the counterpoint is clear already.

This bizarre notion clutters what is in other ways a beautiful and intelligent production, and one of the best-sung Rakes I can remember. Laura Hopkins produces a marvellous series of tableau settings, largely costume-based, though with a lovely Theocritan Arcadia for Truelove's garden; how clever to make the brothel exclusively of the bodies in it, with Yvonne Lea as a comely if overcooked Mother Goose (nothing in the libretto makes her the usual ageing mountain of spilling flesh), even if it does mean abandoning the cuckoo-clock, which should be seen as well as heard.

Warchus himself is an attentive, literate stage director with an eye for detail. His musical timing is immaculate, and I'm impressed by his sensitive handling of movement and facial expression. Rakewell's responsiveness - and his indigence - are worked in from the start, so that one senses his vulnerability. Paul Nilon plays him very accurately and sings throughout with vitality and an apt vocal freshness spoilt only by too much thinning in the last scene - whether from tiredness or as an image of spiritual emptiness, I'm not sure.

But the high quality is general. Alwyn Mellor is a splendid Anne, true in voice as in love, touching in manner, soft, never soggy, just as Claire Powell cleanly hits off Baba's sentimentality at the auction - a nice satire against the 18th- century love of freaks, because Baba, in fact, has the mentality of a frustrated housewife. Neil Jenkins's Sellem is secure, if undermined stylistically by the 1880s redating. Best of all is Bryn Terfel's overplayed, dazzlingly sung Shadow, a pantomime demon who loses because he cheats - one of Auden's best jokes which, oddly, some find implausible.

But the most interesting music-making is the conductor Mark Wigglesworth's. It is out of deference to Warchus's chronology that he softens the edges of Stravinsky's scoringm making it almost sugary at times. I doubt this: it's a musician's reading with the virtues of its defects, since this is - after all - a ravishingly beautiful score. Speeds are on the slow side and there were early ensemble problems, but also much fine playing later and some superbly drilled choruswork. It's a distinguished performance which easily survives the Big Idea.

n Cardiff New Theatre, Wales, 24 Feb, 7 Mar (01222 878889)