The Rake's Progress
Persson, Manistina; Lehtipuu, M. Rose; Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, V. Jurowski. Production: Cox. Opus Arte OA 1062 D (DVD) or OA BD7094 D (Blu-ray), 140 mins. (opera), 19 mins. (bonus), subtitled
When artist David Hockney (in his first designs for the opera stage) and director John Cox mounted a production of The Rake's Progress for Glyndebourne, in 1975, the result was one of the most famous creations in the history of the art form. Hockney and Cox returned to the company for this 2010 revival, which has been astutely filmed by François Roussillon, and even for the home viewer, the wit, inventiveness and beauty of the production remain intact.
Hockney's Rake designs were seen in other houses, but they were not always so attentively lit as they are in this performance. The crosshatched, square-ruled flat scenery could seem feeble with the wrong lighting, but here, the four-color palette looks brilliant. (There is still the occasional strobing effect from the patterning on some of the costumes, but the show looks markedly better than it did in an earlier video incarnation.) Similarly, some of Cox's hair-trigger action could be less precise in other theaters. At Glyndebourne, the finale of the scene outside Tom's house in London — the instantaneous illumination of the interior and exterior and the arrival of the chorus — is thrilling. The most virtuoso coup de théâtre comes at the start of Act III. Tom's London sitting-room, which we've seen before, is newly revealed in black and white, as are the chorus members. It all looks like a tabloid gossip rag. But Anne, the auctioneer and Baba are all in color. It is flawlessly done by lighting designer Robert Bryan.
The longest principal role is taken by harpsichordist Helen Collyer, who plays with real wit and character. She is given pride of place in this review, because nowhere on the packaging or in the twenty-page booklet can her name be found. As Tom, Topi Lehtipuu gives an unusual reading of his role. At first we think Tom is nothing more than a brat. He's no simpleton; rather he is sassy and mocking. Yet later he is genuinely taken with the idea of Nick Shadow's breadmaking machine. For a moment he feels that it is not too late — that he will break the pattern of failure and will finally do some good. We end up caring about him after all.
Miah Persson's Anne also has a transformation. In her aria, she sings incisively, with clarity and bright tones, her choppy music completely under control. By the final scene, shocked at Tom's irretrievable madness, she is singing with beauty and great reserves of breath. Matthew Rose must be one of the youngest Shadows in history. He and Cox clearly are interested in the "progress" part of the opera's title, with Shadow continually monitoring everything Tom does. Cox gives Shadow a little gesture at the end of each scene, reminding us that he pulls the strings.
Cox has made some sly allusions to Don Giovanni in the staging, as Stravinsky does in the music. He makes one big miscalculation — some sort of forced march during the charming "Lanterloo" chorus to accompany a brief, stylized crucifixion scene enacted by some of the chorus members.
As a whole, the production does great honor to the spirit of Stravinsky's masterpiece. This includes the conducting of Vladimir Jurowski, whose orchestral contribution is light and fleet, commenting on the characters rather than driving them. There's ebullience and optimism under Tom's "I wished but once," real melancholy under Anne's arrival in London, a bounding but not panicked tread to Shadow's "Come, master, observe the host of mankind." Under Jurowski, Anne's aria doesn't feel like a freestanding number; rather, we seem to catch her on the fly.
Yet is there perhaps more to the Rake than even Stravinsky, Auden and Kallman realized? For a 2007 production in Brussels, also available on DVD from Opus Arte, director Robert Lepage and designer Carl Fillion had the wit to see the Rake as a peculiarly American story. It's a tale of the corrupting power of fame and Hollywood, and the characters are utterly believable. (Tom, for example, is a basic Everyman, unlike the fidgety Cox conception.) When the singers step out of character to offer the final moral in Cox's version, all is wiped away. With Lepage, the story continues to haunt us for a day or so: this really could happen to us. How interesting that the Rake can support such highly divergent interpretations. And how lucky that people who couldn't see these shows in the theater can still get a sense of these two intensely sustained conceptions.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN