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The Rake's Progress at Hackney Empire review: a hectic revival that has ransacked the dressing-up box

 (Richard Hubert Smith)
(Richard Hubert Smith)

As a poet, WH Auden considered opera “the last refuge of the High Style”. In their text for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (premiered in Venice in 1951), he and his collaborator Chester Kallman certainly made the most of the high-style opportunities that opera offered.

Their libretto, drawing on Hogarth’s 18th-century paintings, is peppered with sly rhyming couplets, thees and thous, inverted word-order and sundry other archaisms.

Stravinsky’s music grabs all of them gleefully, echoing 18th-century style, particularly Mozart, while making it entirely his own. The plot follows the fate of Tom Rakewell from ardent country-boy lover to dissolute poppinjay via a brothel, marriage to Baba – a bearded lady from the circus – and eventually Bedlam mental asylum.

The agent of his fall is Nick Shadow, a diabolical presence who tempts Tom away from his betrothed, Anne Trulove, in order to show him what’s on offer in London, that well-known den of sleaze and fleshly delights.

The opera provides endless opportunities for inventive directors and designers. Polly Graham’s new production for English Touring Opera, designed by April Dalton, has ransacked the dressing-up box and the props store, creating a hectic gallimaufry that spans centuries near and distant.

Graham and movement director Alex Gotch fill the stage with action, which at times becomes wearing as we try to fathom the significance of the Punch and Judy booth to one side of the stage, or why some of the well-drilled chorus are wearing antlers.

Better a show that has too many ideas than one that hasn’t enough. The opera was both the culmination and highpoint of the composer’s neo-classical period, its emphasis on wind instruments lending the music a deliciously sour tang, well captured by the ETO orchestra under Jack Sheen.

 (Richard Hubert Smith)
(Richard Hubert Smith)

Things really lift off after the interval, when Robin Bailey as the auctioneer Sellem has a whale of a time finding buyers for Tom’s worthless knick-knacks.

In general, the cast makes sense of the libretto’s dense cadences, no mean feat. Jerome Knox makes Shadow a convincingly chummy companion on Tom’s journey to hell. Lauren Young revels in the decidedly un-woke role of Baba without descending into parody, while as Anne, Nazan Fikret stays the right side of sweetness and light, despite having to wield a large sword that seems quite out of character.

On this opening night, Frederick Jones only made it through Act One as Tom; after that, the role was sung from the side of the stage by Brenton Spiteri as Jones mimed onstage: a turn of events that did little harm to proceedings; both sang with real feeling. Beneath the barrage of ideas and concepts, this is a thoughtful production. It should travel well.

Touring until May 28; englishtouringopera.org.uk