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S & H Opera Review

Stravinsky, "The Rake's Progress," English National Opera, London Coliseum, December 1st. (M. E.) review 1 of 2.


This production is the perfect example of the kind of thing that the ENO does best; taking a frankly second - rate piece and during the course of the evening, making you feel for a short time that in fact it belongs up there with the greatest, thanks to a most treasurable virtue - it is a real company, and this was as fine a company show as I have ever come across. If it had been put on at the ROH, you may be sure that the pages of the "Times" review would have been flecked with spittle from their critic's ecstatic ravings. As far as the work itself is concerned, I couldn't care less if I never hear it on disc again, but I would happily sit through Annabel Arden's production more than once, just to enjoy the superlative singing and to wallow in the sensation of seeing a fully thought through production, populated by singing actors who clearly not only understood but were deeply involved with what they were doing.

The opening scene is set in front of a cloud-painted safety curtain, which may sound strange, but after this fact had been registered, the backdrop became insignificant, since one was immediately gripped by the singing and characterisation. The period chosen is that of the work's completion and first performance, the very early 1950s, and the feel for the time was striking, given its achievement with such simple means as the fuzzy cardigans worn by Tom and Anne's father, the pipe clamped in the latter's teeth and the W.I. style turquoise banner used to wrap the lovers in their vision of pastoral bliss. Barry Banks, as Tom, fulfilled every requirement of the part; callow in his naiveté at the outset, rapturous in the love duets, suitably tempestuous in the London scenes, and extremely touching at the end. The difference in height and personal style between him and Gidon Saks' Shadow was very marked, and the director knew just how to use them both tactfully on stage.

Saks' performance must rank as one of the most remarkable before the public today; totally immersing himself in the part, he wore the role like a second skin, and achieved that difficult dual sense of a character who is inherently evil yet forever fascinating. Looking like a cross between Frasier Crane and Bela Lugosi, he dominated the fragile human characters and held the stage-box audience in a lightly sinister complicity with his actions. Saturnine in voice as well as appearance, he sang his music with genuinely beautiful tone and most idiomatic phrasing; the scenes where he turns the clock back, and where he claims his ultimate wages, were both frightening in action and gripping in sound.

The brothel scenes were superbly staged, with the wonderful ENO chorus again giving a display of perfect ensemble skills, aided by the natural and appropriate direction given to them; what a contrast to the dire free-for-all which opened the recent ROH "Rigoletto." I wanted to wear almost every costume, too, and that's not something I've felt since "Semele" in 1999. The set was dominated by a huge ornate clock atop which a cupid frisked, later wielding a scythe, and the whole was beautifully lit, another feature of the production as a whole; there was no pointless murkiness, but where a crepuscular world was required, it was provided, most notably in the wonderful scene where the vest-clad Shadow seems to stalk the innocent Anne.

Mother Goose and Sellem were superbly taken by Rebecca de Pont Davies and John Graham Hall, two ENO company principals who have both delighted me in a series of small but telling roles. Unforgettable images included those of Sellem in the auction scenes, sardonically exulting in the sale of Baba's goods, and even more, of Mother Goose in Act 3 scene 2, - as the card game unfolds, she hovers at the side of the stage, clad in black with a few isolated spangles, her long grey hair and skeletal features brooding over the scene with macabre malevolence. The singer's every turn of the hand here, each movement of the face, brought to mind a nightmare vision from a painting by Fuseli; this was superbly directed playing, obviously, but more than that, it was the meeting of director and singing actor for which one so often longs at the opera, and so seldom experiences. It was worth going just for that.

Lisa Milne's Anne is another noteworthy addition to this fine young singer's gallery of roles; she achieved the near-impossible feat of making Anne interesting, and in her set-piece cabaletta and aria where she vows to find her beloved no matter what ensues, it was not just the musical quotations from "Fidelio" ("Ich folg' den innern Triebe..) and "Così fan Tutte" ("Come Scoglio") which made you think of great sopranos of the past, since her bright top notes and natural phrasing in themselves would have been worthy of the role's first interpreter.

Perhaps the finest singing came from Sally Burgess as Baba; ENO audiences know that this is a great mezzo - soprano who never gives a less than convincing performance, but she surpassed herself in this role; as with Milne, she made an unlikely character believable and sympathetic, and her voice, with its warm, smoky tones and intimate languor, is perfect for the part; a treasurable assumption.

The final madhouse scenes were again enacted in front of the safety curtain, this time strikingly dotted with very naturalistic stigmata. The chorus and Shadow were now garbed as doctors and/or madmen, and the contrast between this harsh world and the cosy one of the Trulove family, as shown in Gerard O'Connor's roundly characterised father, could hardly have been greater. Banks rose to lyrically affecting, achingly moving tones here, and succeeded in arousing one's sympathy for Tom in his affecting delusions; Auden's pastiche of Shelley's "Adonais" has seldom sounded so genuine.

Vladimir Jurowski clearly loves the opera, and he conducted a spacious, finely detailed account of the score; he seems to be that rare creature, a singers' conductor, and his accompaniment of the arias, in particular, was scrupulous. His meticulous handling of the detail of the music was remarkable, as was the playing, which was beautifully articulated and precise, with many cherishable moments, such as the rendition of those woodwind notes which so vividly recall Mozart's "Per Pietá," during Tom's singing of his regret at his betrayal of his ideals.

Whether or not one would be willing to include "The Rake's Progress" in Auden's very narrow canon of the great operas of last century, is a debatable point; however, what is beyond debate is that the present production gives it every possible chance of being regarded as just that, and there could be no greater achievement for director, cast and conductor.

Melanie Eskenazi


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