Philip Hensher: Rake's still making perfect progress

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Glyndebourne has just revived its production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. It was first performed as long ago as 1975, when it was immediately hailed as a brilliant response to this most beautiful of 20th-century operas. David Hockney's designs, blowing up 18th-century cross-hatching engravings, and John Cox's production perfectly mirror the opera's style, in which artifice and pastiche give birth to the most painful emotions.

It was perfect then, and it is perfect now. It doesn't seem to have aged a bit. The Rake's Progress is one of my favourite operas, and though I've seen it many times in different productions, nothing has ever come so close to its original spirit as Cox and Hockney. Other producers have made the brothel scene lewder, or decided to transport it to contemporary Zurich or Los Angeles. Glyndebourne's production just gets it right.

Thirty-five years is a very long time for a production to be preserved. In many cases, changing tastes alter our notions of excellence. I don't think we would necessarily enjoy some of the most celebrated opera productions of 40 years ago; some old Puccini productions seem embarrassingly cluttered. Once-famous pieces of revolutionary simplicity like Josef Svoboda's designs for Covent Garden's Die Frau Ohne Schatten or Ralph Koltai's designs for Peter Maxwell Davies's Taverner would probably now seem creaky rather than groovy.

Still, the survival and impact of the Cox/Hockney Rake's Progress demonstrates that sometimes, an opera house simply gets it right. There may be no very good reason, in these cases, to do anything other than just carry on reviving it until taste completely changes. At Covent Garden, the great productions of Don Carlos by Luchino Visconti and of Boris Godunov by Tarkovsky were preserved, rightly, for many years after their first outing.

At Bayreuth, the desire to refresh Wagner from time to time has sometimes resulted in the premature jettisoning of great productions. It is generally agreed that the Ring at Bayreuth has had two truly great postwar productions. The first, Wieland Wagner's stripped-down Expressionist version in 1951; the second, the Victorian industrialist vision of Patrice Chéreau in 1976. Both ran for a mere seven years. Considering the high failure rate of Ring cycles, it seems unnecessarily wasteful of Bayreuth not to continue both of them a little longer.

Revivals of classic opera productions give us an insight into theatre practices and design of the recent past, in ways quite unlike the straight theatre. The famous Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a mere five years before the Hockney Rake's Progress. The Brook production hasn't been seen for decades; it has long disappeared into memory, theatrical history, and what film may preserve. All you have to do to see this famous Hockney production is to phone the box office and wait for returns.

Opera goers are generally much luckier than visitors to the straight theatre. They have a choice between this season's innovative new take and revived, classic productions. There seems no good reason for ENO to replace Jonathan Miller's celebrated Mafioso Rigoletto, and Anthony Minghella's beautiful Madam Butterfly will be good for decades to come. On the other hand, the Donmar Warehouse is not very likely to revisit a famous production from only 10 years ago.

Theatre goers have to rely on memory and film. Opera goers can mount a direct comparison, and if you want to know the difference between Mozart productions of 30 years ago and now, you often only have to travel in space, rather than in time. And sometimes the historic production wins hands down. There is no taint of the museum in this production of 35 years standing: I see no present need for Glyndebourne ever to replace it.

Why Berlioz's big-band sound is fantastique

The National Youth Orchestra filed on stage at this year's Prom, and kept on filing. The numbers were beyond all precedent. Five harps; a dozen double basses; eight trombones; a positive sea of strings. Whether such forces have ever been assembled to perform the Berlioz 'Symphonie Fantastique' must be open to question. What isn't up for debate is the undoubted fact that Berlioz, with his taste for multiple off-stage brass bands, would have absolutely adored it.

These giant orchestras are overwhelming at full throttle, which in a way makes no sense at all. I read somewhere that to double the volume of a fortissimo, you need to increase your forces by a factor not of two, but of 10 – 20 trumpets will be only twice as loud as two, so the NYO's five harps ought to be only a little louder than Berlioz's requested two. Whether that's true or not, technology has long meant that the most efficient way to increase volume is to stick a microphone in front of an instrument, and turn the dial. Properly manipulated, a single amplified flute could probably drown out any number of trombones.

But it wouldn't be the same. The tremendous sound of an orchestra of two-hundred somehow trumps, in detail and richness, any other sonic experience. For some reason, a fortissimo from a huge orchestra when compared to an amplified piece of music at top volume seems, not louder exactly, but somehow a musical experience on a much more extensive scale. Actually, scrub that: on the basis of the NYO's prom, it might very well be louder, too.

How to track down great artworks

The other day, I got on the wrong train from Berne to Geneva, and found myself pulling into a town called Solothurn. I had nothing in particular to be on time for, and vaguely remembered somebody saying it was rather nice. That it certainly was, with the sort of exquisite German-language baroque that positively calls out for the appearance of Robert Helpmann as the Child-Catcher across the cobbles. And then the town museum appeared. Oh – I thought. That's a Matisse. And there's another one. And a Cézanne. And isn't that a Klimt? And a Van Gogh. Oh – OK. Am I the only person in the world who didn't know about the museum at Solothurn? Apparently not, since it was completely empty.

You never know what you are going to come across in the small provincial museums of Europe. There are some magnificent Caravaggios in a scruffy little museum in Messina in Sicily. Everyone knows about Dresden, of course, but how many people ever go to see the gems in the Karlsruhe gallery? With an hour to spare, I would always go to see a town's local museum. Sometimes there is nothing but a stuffed yak and some coprolites; sometimes an exhaustive collection of the local pointilliste painter, bequeathed by his widow; and then again, sometimes a Matisse. You simply never know, and never will, unless you just get off the train now and again.