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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rake’s Progress (1951)
Libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman
Tom Rakewell – Greg Fedderly (tenor)
Ann Trulove – Barbara Hendricks (soprano)
Nick Shadow – Håkan Hagegård (bass-baritone)
Baba the Turk – Brian Asawa (counter-tenor)
Trulove – Erik Saeden (bass)
Mother Goose – Gunilla Söderström (mezzo)
Sellem – Arild Helleland (tenor)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Directed by Inger Åby
Co-production by SVT1 Drama, German TV Network and Nordic Film Fund, c.1995
NVC ARTS 3984-22352-2 [119:00]

Regular readers of these columns will know my misgivings about ‘filmed’ opera, and this is no exception. Technically it is quite good, with no real lip-synch problems and decent picture and sound quality. It also boasts some attractive leads that look right for the parts - with one exception - and are in very good voice. The drawbacks concern the overall conception and whether ‘opening out’ Stravinsky’s chamber opera, written specifically for the intimacy of Venice’s La Fenice, really works. It is also quite badly cut, with the bread-machine scene gone altogether - maybe no great loss - and a large chunk of the all-important Bedlam scene, including Trulove’s appearance. The ensemble Epilogue, with its morality warning, also goes and is replaced by the more cinematic shot of a simple wooden coffin being carted into the distance. This in itself is quite effective but is then spoilt by a final freeze-frame of the two lovers surrounded by a Hollywood-style haze – perhaps one liberty too many. These alterations are all presumably to keep the running time down to a neat couple of hours and also be more ‘attractive’ to a mainstream cinema audience. It may already rule it out for you, but if not, read on.

Director Inger Åby gives us some ravishing countryside locations for the opening, but his London is obviously not the English capital and looks more like a central European city, presumably Stockholm. His naturalistic costumes and claustrophobic interior sets have a degree of atmosphere and his love of countryman Ingmar Bergman is obvious – gloomy lighting, garish close-ups and lots of symbolism, notable the ticking of the clock at various points, as poor Tom’s time runs out.

What could save the day for some is the singing and playing. Greg Fedderly has a pleasingly full tenor, is very musical and sings with excellent diction and phrasing. He also looks the part, wide-eyed and handsome, making his downfall all the more moving. Barbara Hendricks is also on good form, touching and simple, and her big Act 1 aria ‘No word from Tom’ is beautifully delivered. Håkan Hagegård has a light-ish baritone, not as dark or rich as Samuel Ramey or Bryn Terfel, but he shapes the phrases intelligently and never overacts, which is a blessing. The bizarre casting of countertenor Brian Asawa as Baba the Turk is a mystery. Yes, he sings well and we know it’s meant to be a bearded lady, but to cast an obvious male brings out all sorts of homo-erotic undertones that are uncomfortable and, if they are intentional, are never fully explored.

Salonen is a seasoned Stravinskian and his sharp, incisive and fiery rendition of the score is a delight, as is the playing of his Swedish band. DVD competition is not particularly fierce in this work as yet, though many will be waiting impatiently for the famous Glyndebourne production from Hockney, Cox and Haitink which, as far as I’m aware, is only available as a Region 1 import at the moment. When it does materialise it will probably be first choice. You could give this Swedish film some consideration, but its many virtues are probably outweighed by too many important minuses.

Tony Haywood



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