Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rake’s Progress (1951) [2:20:00]
Anne Trulove - Miah Persson (soprano)
Tom Rakewell - Topi Lehtipuu (tenor)
Father Trulove - Clive Bayley (baritone)
Nick Shadow - Matthew Rose (baritone)
Mother Goose - Susan Gorton (mezzo)
Baba the Turk - Elena Manistina (mezzo)
Sellem - Graham Clark (tenor)
Keeper - Duncan Rock (bass)
The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live 18-19 December 2010, Glyndebourne Opera House

Picture: NTSC/16:9. Sound: PCM stereo, DTS 5.1 (5.0). Region: 0 (worldwide). Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1062D [2:20:00 (opera) + 19:00 (extras)]
Among the weaknesses of The Rake’s Progress, as acknowledged by the composer in the booklet accompanying his 1964 CBS – now Sony – recording of the opera, is the fact that “the Epilogue is a little too ‘nifty’ (as Americans say)”. I wonder if Americans really did say “nifty” in the sixties; and if they did, was the sense in which Stravinsky was using the word quite the right one? What would we say now? Slick? Whatever one might think of this Epilogue, it seems to have taken quite a few of the 2010 Glyndebourne audience by surprise, just as it will have done at La Fenice when the work was first performed in 1951. Perhaps Stravinsky was thinking as much of the libretto – a remarkable piece of work by W H Auden and Chester Kallman – as he was of the music, but nifty or not, the Epilogue is typical of an opera in which the sheer brilliance of much of the music is a defining feature. The end of the brothel scene – brilliantly staged here with a circular procession around the bed on which is revealed the hideous Mother Goose, monstrously copulating atop an almost comatose Tom Rakewell – is a further example of the composer’s remarkable imagination and daring, as is the pastiche baroque sarabande that accompanies Baba the Turk as she reveals her beard – complete with stripper’s teasing – to her adoring public. There are weaker moments of course, both musically and dramatically. I regret the composer’s decision to accompany much of the graveyard scene, where Nick Shadow loses his prize and Tom loses his reason, with the dryness of the harpsichord. Musically the opera is closest, in Stravinsky’s output, to a work such as the Symphony in C, but the fact is that The Rake’s Progress does seem to qualify for that much used but so rarely accurate label, a work unlike any other.
The origins are to be found in the series of Hogarth paintings entitled A Rake’s Progress. In an interview on the DVD, David Hockney confirms that his stage designs, based almost entirely on parallel and crossing straight lines, were inspired by techniques used when Hogarth’s paintings were later engraved and published in book form. This hatching produces a visual texture at once rich, varied and deeply evocative. And it is everywhere, on the backs of the cards used to determine Tom’s fate near the end of the opera, even on the shoehorn Nick hands to him as he helps him get ready to go out in pursuit of a wife. Such attention is only one example of why opera is such an expensive art form. There is spontaneous applause as the curtain rises on the auction scene, where everything is in shades of grey. The only colour to be seen is in the costumes of the auctioneer, and later Baba, when she emerges. I feel sure that at the end of the run Miah Persson will have hidden the dress and cloak she wears for much of the opera in her suitcase, so beautiful is it. Only Bedlam disappoints me, its inmates, grotesquely masked, ranked in strange boxes behind the action, practically immobile. I can’t quite see what Hockney was driving at there. The production is directed by John Cox. He has created a marvellous stage experience, full of touching and sometimes near-hilarious detail.
Nick Shadow speaks directly to the audience in Act 2, which justifies his winking and gurning at them at various points throughout, usually to show what a dupe his master is, and always to delicious comic effect. His costume, and in particular his hairdo, is ridiculous, yet strangely disquieting. Matthew Rose plays the part to the hilt, making clear from his very first scene that Tom is a pushover and that Anne is where the danger lies. He manages adeptly the comic aspects of the role, at least as far as the graveyard scene, when everything changes. It’s possible to imagine a darker voice for Shadow, but I find his assumption totally convincing. Topi Lehtipuu as Tom is very fine too. He captures very well indeed Tom’s love for Anne, which is genuine and will be his salvation, but which he abandons by weakness of will. Miah Persson is adorable as Anne. She brings out beautifully the vulnerability of the character, but crucially she has brilliantly understood the steely determination present in Anne’s music, and acts it out, both physically and vocally, to perfection. The smaller roles are beautifully taken, and the chorus sings and acts splendidly. Time and again I was struck, as never before, by the sheer beauty of the sound of this work, and the orchestra plays magnificently under the inspiring direction of Vladimir Jurowski.
The film has been made by a largely French team and apparently for French television. It has been sensitively done, remaining faithful to the action throughout. As you watch this film, and savour the remarkable and delicious detail that has gone into the production, you can avail yourself, if you wish, of subtitles in English or in three other languages. You can choose between two different sound setups. Before watching, you can read in the booklet the useful essay and synopsis by Mike Ashman. And afterwards, you can easily locate your favourite passages among the forty-eight chapters usefully provided. Alternatively, if you really want to, you can watch the two extras, but as is so often the way of things, these are of limited interest and value, a series of short interviews mixed in with extracts from the show. Inevitably the performers spend a fair amount of time telling us how wonderful all the others are, and if that sounds cynical let me say that they are indeed wonderful, all of them, and so are no doubt totally sincere. Even David Hockney, his Yorkshire accent still attractively present, doesn’t really have much to tell us, but Jurowski at one point does make the interesting point that it is difficult for the cast to avoid becoming a kind of “singing accompaniment to the set” as “the set is quite difficult to compete with”.
There are other performances of The Rake’s Progress on DVD, including an earlier incarnation of this same production, finely sung but now superseded technically. Then there is the production from La Monnaie in Brussels, garishly updated to 1950s America. Rapturously received in many quarters, you are likely to love it or hate it. Either way, there is no question, this life-enhancing DVD from Glyndebourne is truly special and not to be missed.
William Hedley
A brilliant performance of an opera like no other, in a classic Glyndebourne production.