The Rake’s Progress Back

Glyndebourne are currently touring their production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, so when they came to Milton Keynes Theatre, I grabbed the chance to go and see it. Armed with my facemask and vaccine certificate, it was a thrill to be going to see live opera once again. The large hall wasn’t full – possibly a hangover from the pandemic, or the alternative attractions of the other productions that Glyndebourne are offering on this tour – but the audience was engaged and appreciative.

Stravinsky completed the opera in 1951, but it is of great interest to scholars of the eighteenth century due to its source material, its music and (in this case) the staging. He was inspired by an exhibition of William Hogarth’s prints and in particular the eight engravings depicting the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, who inherits a fortune, overindulges in the pleasures of London, and ends up penniless in the madhouse.

W. H. Auden fleshed out the story for the libretto, introducing the character of Nick Shadow, the manservant who is the devil in disguise, and who makes a bargain with Tom for his soul. Shadow is played here with relish by Sam Carl, who is at turns amusing and terrifying. Auden’s lyrics are very idiomatic, playing on many of the preoccupations of the century including politeness, fortune and corruption.

Stravinsky’s music too, while clearly of its time, captured the century very well. The music of his ‘neoclassical’ phase was characterised by emotional detachment, minimal textures and strict structures, but in The Rake’s Progress he embraced the form and spirit of eighteenth-century opera. The format of arias, ensembles and choruses, connected by recitative accompanied by harpsichord, is of the century, although it is closer in tone to the later operas of Mozart than to those of Hogarth’s time.

The current staging is a revival of the famous 1975 Glyndebourne production, directed by John Cox with stage designs by David Hockney. While Hockney did not directly copy the Rake series, the style is modelled on that of Hogarth’s etchings, with flat panels in white coloured with the ‘crosshatch’ lines used by eighteenth-century print artists. The colour scheme is deliberately minimal, and moves from the green of countryside, via the red of the city, to the black of madness and death. This very much plays up the ‘country’ politics of Hogarth’s original, whereby rural virtue contrasts with urban vice.

Against this backdrop, the players are very much three dimensional, wearing stylised period dress in similarly symbolic colours. This contrast lent an air of fantasy to the proceedings, emphasising that this is a moral fable. Children of the 1970s like myself might be reminded of the design of the original Paddington Bear cartoon, where a three-dimensional bear negotiated a two-dimensional London rendered in white cardboard. Nevertheless, the production was very much grounded in Hogarth’s century rather than the twentieth, or indeed the twenty first.

The musical performance was superb. The conductor Kerem Hasan energetically directed the orchestra and all the performers were excellent: the clean orchestral textures and clear diction meant that, even in the cheap seats, you didn’t need the surtitles to follow the action. Special mention to the chorus who had to play physically varied roles, from the exuberance of the bawdy house, via the polite poise of the auction, to the unsettling stillness of the madhouse. Eighteenth-century satirical prints and stage drama often conveyed meaning through bodily posture, and this production was very idiomatic in that sense too.

Overall, I found the production very enjoyable and persuasive. If you are a fan of Hogarth’s prints and you haven’t yet seen Hockney’s famous staging, then I would urge you to seek it out.