The Rake’s Progress was first performed at La Fenice,
Venice, in 1951. His librettist was W.H. Auden. The idea for
the project had first arisen in 1947, when the composer saw
Hogarth’s series of paintings of the same name at an exhibition
in Chicago. As for his detailed plan, he explained: ‘The Rake’s
Progress is cast as an 18th century number opera.
The dramatic progress depends on the succession of recitatives
and arias, duets and trios, choruses and instrumental interludes,
a story told and enacted almost entirely in song.’ He viewed
this style in terms of ‘the classical practice of separate numbers
that crystallise and hold the emotion of a dramatic situation
at chosen moments’.
While there is relatively
little opportunity for virtuosity in the orchestral writing,
the London Sinfonietta do play with what can only be described
as precision and panache, with a keen pacing of the drama led
by the conducting of Riccardo Chailly. The recording is helpful
to the orchestral players, and to the distinguished contribution
of the woodwinds in particular. The orchestral sound has a classical
priority allowing for clarity of texture and a closely-knit
sense of ensemble. There are also moments of dramatic power
as and when required.
In this new mastering
of the original the sound has emerged with more clarity and
depth than previously, and this has enhanced the whole performance.
The cast is well balanced and there are some distinguished contributions
from a talented array of singers, all suitably selected in their
roles, save perhaps for Astrid Varnay, whose impeccable Wagnerian
credentials do not necessarily make her an ideal artist for
the role of Mother Goose. Samuel Ramey's distinctive contribution
as Nick Shadow is as fine as any interpretation in the catalogue.
His vocal style makes a satisfying impression, and he conveys
an immediate and lasting impression as the cunning, ingratiating
personification of the devil demon, to the life. As the opera
proceeds he manages to intensify the characterization of the
role, transforming from initial suavity towards genuine menace,
while never sacrificing his musical standards.
As the naïve and
vulnerable Anne Trulove, Cathryn Pope conveys a sense of charm
and youthfulness. The lyricism of the part is always brought
to the fore, to the extent that one might argue that this stylistic
affectation is overdone. On the other hand, Stafford Dean as
Trulove makes a marvellous foil to her, however, exuding fatherly
experience at every turn. Then heading the cast comes Philip
Langridge's performance as the Rake himself, Tom Rakewell. This
is excellent: wholly sympathetic and technically assured. The
most demanding aspect of the role, of course, comes when it
is necessary to convey the character’s descent into madness,
and this is remarkably achieved.
The set is nicely
packaged in a presentation box, and there is a full libretto,
albeit in tiny print. Another downside is the dearth of other
documentation. There is no lack of information about this opera
and it is disappointing that the booklet contains only the list
of characters, the various cue points, and the libretto.