The New York Critic: Reviews

Rolling Their R's

The Rake's Progress
The Royal Opera, London

Igor Stravinsky wrote his opera The Rake's Progress in 1951. He was inspired by a set of paintings of the same name published by the English artist William Hogarth in 1735 that depicted the moral dissolution of a young man seduced by material goods. The plot loosely follows Hogarth's: Tom Rakewell inherits money, dumps his girlfriend and, led by Nick Shadow (the devil himself!) he plays around in the big city. Then - after a bunch of adventures - he's committed to an asylum. A timeless theme if there ever was one.

I am not at home with this material from Igor's middle period. The effusive orchestrations of Right of Spring and Firebird were past for the composer by the time he wrote Progress. But Stravinsky is like Shakespeare; as the evening progresses, we're educated to the idiom. The libretto is by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, and it's uninspiring.

The Royal Opera in London has just staged the piece directed by the Canadian Robert Lepage. The production premiered in Brussels in 2007 and has travelling around (Not unlike its jeune premier). The production is dominated by concept as expressed in the grand set designs by Carl Fillion. The opera's been set in the prototypical American Mid-west and decadent California. The libretto retains its allusions to London, and it's really cool to separate lyrics and design this way.

The first set is a flatland with oil rig - the clouds move, with a vanishing point right of center, as the overcast grows. Then, in the first stage in our rake's corruption, he makes a western movie (and here the designer is less successful), with Shadow floating around behind a sort-of cardboard representation of a classic Hollywood camera. In another scene, a wisp of grey balloon center stage inflates to become a trailer, and this is just cheap.

We spend a lot of time at a pool on the coast. There's a terrific sunset here over a rippling ocean, and when a crowd of reporters appears, they're in heartless black-and-white. "Ruin - disaster - shame" they croak.

In the opera's best scene, Shadow leads our man to the entrance to hell - it's wonderfully macabre with pictures of playing cards and of a yellow tub ducky, all sadistically tasteless, "Abandon all hope, you who enter here" in pictures. And when Shadow says "Behold your waiting grave", it's just luscious. Anyway, Tom doesn't go to hell - he goes to the asylum instead, where everything is worse - pale, colorless.

And so we're served the two elements - libretto and design - linked by theme, not logic. The setting deepens the opera by adding dissonance. The problem is that the impressive design is so derivative that it lacks mystery. We know just where each idea has come from. There are specific allusions to classic movies and stage musicals - Oklahoma, Sunset Boulevard, et al.

Charles Castronovo is terrific as Rakewell, physically expressive, with clear diction. John Relyea, as Shadow, is sufficiently oily; in fact, he appears out of the oil well, and he looks like oil itself. As Anne Truelove, the dumped prairieland girlfriend, Sally Matthews modifies her vowels so extremely on the high notes that we can't understand what she's saying. I was grateful for the text next to the stage. In fact, the diction throughout is odd - sometimes they roll their "R's".

So Lepage's stage has been enlarged without being enriched. Fillion's elegant stage pictures are lifeless and, with no drama in the story or depth in the characters, the production is more impressive than memorable.

- Steve Capra
July 2008

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