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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rake’s Progress (1948-51)
Tom Rakewell: Leo Goeke (soprano)
Anne: Felicity Lott (tenor)
Nick Shadow: Samuel Ramey (bass-baritone)
Trulove, Anne’s father: Richard Van Allan (bass)
Baba the Turk: Rosalind Elias (mezzo)
Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
Stage production: John Cox
Set design: David Hockney
Rec. Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1975 by Southern Television. DVD Region 0.

Having just reviewed a book listing recordings of music inspired by art (review), a seminal interpretation of a major twentieth century opera arrives for my consideration. Had the book run to DVD listings, no doubt this present release would have been ripe for inclusion. The book also omits, because of its terms of reference rather than carelessness) the now available recording of the La Fenice world premiere in 1951 (Gala CD), conducted by the composer. His later studio recording is listed (Sony SM2K 46299); and there are others from Chailly, Ozawa, Nagano, Gardiner, and two from Robert Craft.

There is perhaps more urgency to see as well as hear this work than there is with most, so close is the impact of the visual inspiration upon it. It prompts questions regarding influence, inspiration and even interpretation of the work to which, more than any other, version, this release is able to offer a response. And with this production there is a double circle of inspiration at work: in the music and the production design. The inspirational circle of the music is drawn from Hogarth through Mozart to Stravinsky, whilst that of the design is more directly from Hogarth to Hockney, though taking full account of Stravinsky en route. Curious interweavings are at work.

To my eyes and ears one of the keys to the success this production enjoyed is to be found in the premiere at La Fenice. Stravinsky, normally money conscious whatever the opportunity, worked on the score for three years without commission with the promise that La Fenice would stage it. The reason? The relatively chamber-sized proportions of the old house perfectly suited his intentions for the scheme. The translation from one house to another could appear almost seamless with the intimate Mozartian heritage the old Glyndebourne had about it further playing into the bargain.

The forms employed are more Mozart-indebted than might initially be realised - secco or accompagnato recitatives, solos, duets, trios, interludes – even the telling of a moral story that has parallels with Don Giovanni: both deal with man’s downfall. But Stravinsky’s music is original, rather than mere pastiche. So too is the plot itself, cunningly engineered by the composer, Aldous Huxley and Chester Kallman to end up at a staged depiction of Hogarth’s Bedlam, perhaps the most famous engraving in The Rake’s Progress (1732/33), which Stravinsky saw in Chicago.

Having recently re-read John Jolliffe’s excellent Glyndebourne: An Operatic Miracle (Pub. John Murray), I was aware that Hockney’s influence upon the production was more than that of a mere designer. John Cox, the director, even commented afterwards on Hockney’s definite views about the performances. One contemporary critic opined that the design had ‘completely absorb[ed] the music, producing a true marriage of the arts’. Watching the production now it is nigh impossible to disagree.

What is apparent is the clarity of line in all senses. Visually, Hockney’s employment of hatched lines on a white ground not only recalls in spirit the engraving process, but emphasises the essential elements of his conception, which in itself owes much to historical accuracy for the Bedlam scene particularly. Although the designs are Hockney’s the precise point where they depart from Hogarth’s influence can at times be hard to identify; they demonstrate Hockney’s life-long interest in earlier English art.

Musical line plays its part too. As other DVDs have demonstrated (such as the Don Giovanni from two years later – see review), Haitink had still to grasp the full depth of Mozart; but his understanding was such that he brings forth the impulses to Stravinsky’s writing. The conducting, like much of Haitink’s early work, appears lacking in emotional emphasis, but this serves to increase the work’s power. Orchestra and chorus show commitment and often refinement too, taking 1970s TV sound recording into account.

Many will buy the DVD for the singers alone, and this is a justifiable reason. Felicity Lott’s portrayal of Anne was loved at the time, and is well preserved here. But Flott in Stravinsky, some might think? Recall that Elizabeth Schwarzkopf created the role at La Fenice - great Straussian lyricists both of them – and both negotiate the spiky contours of vocal line with honour. And to look at Flott you know Tom Rakewell must be mad – how could any sane man turn her away? Richard Van Allen, as Trulove, manages the role valiantly, though its confines are rather tight given his abilities.

Perusing the Don Giovanni review, you might think my comments about Leo Goeke to be predictable here. To an extent, yes; but in one crucial respect I find him a compelling advocate. The voice is lean and reasonably evenly produced, though I still find his acting a little lacking early on. But he comes into his own in the Bedlam scene, with nothing but the delusional belief he is Adonis for company. His tanned wide-jawed all-American looks may to many appear godly – a mask the delusion just manages to crack.

Rosalind Elias’s bearded Baba the Turk is probably not the most extreme interpretation available, but she carries all before her with facial gestures and an exploration of the voice that shows wit and intelligent characterisation at work. There is a marked contrast to the other singers’ purity of production, which is of requisite suitability.

What to say of Sam Ramey’s Nick Shadow, the devil incarnate, a concept believed in by Stravinsky all his life? The devil comes in a kindly shape for sure, sly, brooding and menacing even with a single glance. The smile sends shivers down the spine. Then the voice, whose richness and suppleness might beguile anyone to accept imminent ruin with the cavalier ease of a Tom Rakewell. This is as strongly acted a Stravinskian protagonist as one could wish for, Perhaps some on CD get a shade more from the text, but as a live performance this is hard to beat.

An entirely self-recommending classic that’s not to be missed, whether you want the cerebral pleasures of tracing artistic influences or simply a cracking all-round operatic experience.

Evan Dickerson



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