Tuesday, April 23

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress –Liverpool Empire

The art historian in me jumped at the chance to see William Hogarth’s most-celebrated caricature brought to life in Stravinsky’s opera with a libretto by none other than celebrated poets WH Auden and Chester Kallman, and a classic cross-hatched set design from David Hockney providing a very fitting tribute to the original satire.

Under the direction of John Cox, we open to our hero Tom Rakewell (Frederick Jones) with his very literal Anne Trulove (Soraya Mafi) in the garden of her father (Stephen Richardson). The devil makes work for idle hands and it’s the appearance of Nick Shadow (Sam Carl) who delivers a Faustian-like pact, but one very much of the devil’s making, that sees our rake’s progress well and truly begin as we move from the brothel education of Mother Goose (Fiona Kimm) to the unveiling of and marriage to Baba the Turk (Jessica Ouston) before its inevitable decline with the clearing of debts via auctioneer Sellem (Daniel Norman) and eventual fall into Bedlam under the watchful eye of its keeper (Jack Sandison). And yet it could have been oh so much worse if it weren’t for those rays of hope that true love hints at…

So far so good, what’s not to like?

Well, that this was Stravinsky’s only full-length opera is maybe part of the answer, although the orchestra, conducted by Kerem Hasan – a disciple of the great Bernard Haitink who conducted the original production in 1975 and made it a staple of the Glyndebourne repertoire – gives a composed performance, handling the composer’s regular sleights of hand – often within individual pieces – well, along with the right embellishments to capture ironic moments.

Picture: Sisi Burn

The English libretto is widely celebrated because of its authors yet with the added benefit of surtitles for most of the evening’s performance, it often felt too wordy and forced at times in its rendition as the cast endeavoured to get every word in. As writers are often told, show don’t tell, and in this instance less would most certainly have been more, although for balance this is one of the better efforts emanating from the 20th Century.

As a whole the cast are polished although at times more focus was required with delivery, both musically and dramatically. Mafi was excellent however and stood head and shoulders above her colleagues despite her diminutive size. Special mention to Ouston, a last-minute step-up from the chorus due to illness, who captured the humour of Baba perfectly if a little quietly.

The chorus excelled with what is clearly a promising ensemble very much coming into their own at every opportunity with strong choreography and connection with the orchestra.

The strongest point of all and somewhat ironically therefore the productions undoing is the set. Hockney captures the Hogarth woodcut originals superbly and the clever use of two-dimensional painting to capture fixed objects as well as a palette of distinct colours to offset each scene and transport us from the safety net of earthly greens through to the debauchery of scarlet red is no less than superb, more so in fact when you throw in the sympathetic lighting design from Robert Bryan. However, in what is a series of short vignettes, the time to transform the set between each scene takes far too long and as a result we lose the intended flow and rhythm that Stravinsky would have intended and the piece demands. Equally, with a set so good, it also serves to reinforce where aspects of musicality and drama, are on occasion lacking. There is a balance to be had, let’s hope Glyndebourne can find it. https://www.glyndebourne.com/tour/  

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 1st December 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★