Monday, 10 September 2018

An imaginative Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress from British Youth Opera

Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Frederick Jones - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Frederick Jones
British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Stravinsky The Rake's Progress; Frederick Jones, Samantha Clarke, Sam Carl, dir Stephen Unwin, Southbank Sinfonia, cond: Lionel Friend; British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 September 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Strong principals and an imaginative production make this an enjoyable and thought-provoking evening

Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Jessica Ouston - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Jessica Ouston
British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
We caught the final performance of British Youth Opera's (BYO) 2018 season at the Peacock Theatre on Saturday 8 September 2018 when it performed Igor Stravinsky, WH Auden and Chester Kalman's The Rake's Progress [see Anthony's review of BYO's other 2018 opera, The Enchanted Island] Lionel Friend conducted the Southbank Sinfonia and the production was directed by Stephen Unwin, with designs by James Cotterill, movement by Natasha Harrison and lighting by Mark Jonathan.

Pedro Ometto was Trulove, Samantha Clarke was Anne, Frederick Jones was Tom Rakewell and Sam Carl was Nick Shadow, with Emma Lewis, Jessica Ouston, Iain Henderson and Thomas Mole.

James Cotterill's striking designs greeted us as we entered the auditorium, a Howard Hodgkin-like drop curtain with a gilded proscenium, painted Hodgkin-like as well. This was used, correctly, between scenes with Mark Jonathan's lighting changing the drop-curtain's colour from scene to scene, and Cotterill's backdrops had painting references too. The scenes were sparesely set, gradually accumulataing objects until the climactic aution, after which the stage was bare again. The setting was the 1950s, with costumes of the period and some quirky furniture designs. It made a striking effect, I do hope someoone else picks up this handsome and intelligent production.

The Rake's Progress is surprisingly tricky to cast, singers need flexibility but they need power too, to float over Stravinsky's lively orchestration (and the acoustic of the Peacock Theatre never helps in this regard). And the principals need stamina too, The Rake's Progress is not a short opera. BYO succeeded admirably, casting a trio of principals who filled the opera's requirements so well that you thought more about their interpretation of the roles than technical requirements. That said, diction was a bit patchy when singers were up-stage.

Frederick Jones has a vibrant lyric voice and he projected Tom Rakewell's line with ease and confidence, keeping it nicely lyric. He had a sort of rumpled charm and made Tom lazily naive, yet not annoying. The performance was one of slow build, climaxing in the remarkable pathos of the final scene in Bedlam.


Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Sam Carl, Frederick Jones - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Sam Carl, Frederick Jones - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Samantha Clarke as Anne has a similar, vibrant lyric voice and she wonderfully captured Anne's uncertainty, good-heartedness and inner strength. This Anne had a winning personality, yet you knew she had resources and it was no surprise that in the final scene in Bedlam she was wearing the uniform of St John's Ambulance. Clarke's account of Anne's scene at the end of Act One was rightly show stopping.

Sam Carl's Nick Shadow held the stage effortlessly whenever he was present, singing or no. Carl is a very physical performer, using his lanky body to striking effect, combined with his vivid, dark-hued voice. In fact, this was not the darkest of portrayals, there was more than a hint of Gounod's Mefistofeles' mischief, but this was a remarkable performance all round and I look forward to what Carl does next.

Pedro Ometto made a confident, sober yet rather understated Trulove. Ometto is Brazilian, and his projection of the English text was far more than creditable. Baba the Turk is not a huge role, but it is one capable of making a statement in the right hands. Jessica Ouston, looking outrageous in a red hair and beard, grasped her opportunities and made a vivid impression, yet also convinced in the tender scene when she is sympathetically encouraging to Anne.

Emma Lewis had great fun as Mother Goose, whilst Iain Henderson made the mosdt of his moment as Sellem, and Thomas Mole was discreetly effective as the keeper of the mad house.

It is easy to skate over the surface of Stravinsky's opera, and the virtue of this production was its sense of depth in the characterisation, and a real feeling of emotional development.

Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Pedro Ometta, Samantha Clarke, Frederick Jones - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Pedro Ometta, Samantha Clarke, Frederick Jones
British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Lionel Friend conducted a lively, upfront account of the score with the Southbank Sinfonia (fielding 13 strings) making a strong, confident and stylish contribution. I must also comment the chorus (17 strong) for its confident and lively contribution, great diction and easy transformation from whores and roaring boys, through servants and citizens to madmen  madwomen.

British Youth Opera's 2018 season has finished but plannng has already started for 2019, do consider supporting the company via its website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  •  Just what it says on the tin, an enchanting enchanted island from British Youth Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • A substantial monument: Patrick Hawes talks about The Great War Symphony - interview
  • A vivid theatrical, orchestral experience: John Eliot Gardiner's all-Berlioz prom   (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • Mesmerising: Simone Spagnolo's new philosophical, operatic mono-drama 'Faust, Alberta'  (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Certainly not boring: Rolando Villazón in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito on Deutsche Grammophon (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Sleeping Beauty awakes with a lively afternoon of Victorian & Edwardian light music at the BBC Proms  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Language, Catalan culture & audience engagement: I chat to mezzo Marta Fontanals Simmons - Interview
  • Lyrical & striking: Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion (★★★★) - CD review
  • A return to the Wonderful Town from Rattle's opening season with the London Symphony Orchestra (★★★★) - CD review
  • Sheer delight: Vivaldi's Concerti da Camera  (★★★★½) - CD review
  • A real discovery: Loder's English romantic opera Raymond and Agnes (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Bayreuth’s Die Walküre is pulled from the pack and given another airing conducted by Plácido Domingo (★★★★) - opera review
  • Popular tunes, segregation & pioneers: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - feature article
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