Monday, 14 July 2008

Review of The Rake's Progress

To the Royal Opera House on Saturday for a performance of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Robert Lepage's new production (well, new to Covent Garden, it has already appeared at La Monnaie and in San Francisco). Like Robert Carsen's much travelled production of Bernstein's Candide, Lepage's Rake moves the action to mid 20th Century America and makes it an odyssey through American culture. In Lepage's case the main focus is on American films, so that the opening scenes of the opera are inspired by the open plains of Giant and the Rake's progress becomes a procession through significant American films. The scene in Mother Goose's brothel becomes a film with Nick Shadow as director, which surely loses some of the scenes significance as surely Shadow is meant to be inciting Tom Rakewell to sexual misdemeanours; having him film Rakewell simulating sex is hardly the same thing. Auden and Kalman's libretto is carefully structured so that Nick Shadow takes Tom through a series of increasingly serious misdemeanours, carefully structured; Lepage's resetting seemed to rub the edge off Auden and Kalman's point.

The problem with the opening scene is that Giant, with its background of oil-wells and oil money, is surely not the image of Eden which the countryside in Auden/Kalman's libretto is meant to represent. Throughout the libretto we have the sense that the move to the city is a move towards corruption and that Tom's life in the countryside is a lost Eden. We lack this sense in the Lapage production where the opening scene is not really idyllic and the subsequent ones lack a real sense of place.

Each scene is truly spectacular, as Lepage and his team make extensive use of projection onto a rear screen. There were some problematic apercus, such as Tom's location caravan being inflatable and blowing up before our eyes (why?). Nick's suggestion that Tom marry Baba seems to be more related to the film they are working on than any feeling of Nick further corrupting Tom.

The first half ends part of way through Act 2, with the scene with Tom, Baba and the crowd, represented as the first night of Tom and Baba's film. As Anne has arrived by car (a real one), D. was convinced that the interval was so placed so that they could get the car off. M., though, felt that it was more related to the pool which appears in Act 2, scene 3 (which opened part 2). The pool remains for the opening of Act 3 (the auction scene), mainly you suspect because they couldn't work out how to get rid of it!

As you can see from these comments, the scenery and the set were almost protagonists in their own right. Charles Castelnovo and Sally Matthews could hardly compete. They sang well, but you lacked any sense of character development. Frankly, Lepage just did not make us care who these people were.

The primary fault was probably in the character of Nick Shadow, he just did not seem to be corrupting Tom; Shadow was more like a more disreputable room mate. And John Relyea's performance was simply not sinister. Setting the card scene in a gambling hall seemed to remove another sinister element from the plot.

Conductor Thomas Ades obviously loves the score, but he seems to love it a little too much. His performance fatally lacked pace and punch, particularly in the last act. Too often in the final scenes Ades seemed to dwell lovingly on the details, when what we wanted was something spikier and pacier.

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