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The culmination of the composer's neoclassical period

04.07.2019


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A moral tale of significance, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress was the culmination of the composer’s neoclassical period in which he inhabited and reinvented the musical styles of the past.

Featuring a young and enthusiastic cast recruited from Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists’ programme, this production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress featured Aphrodite Patoulidou, Yannis François, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Fleur Barron, Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel and James Way with Barbara Hannigan conducting the Ludwig Orchestra, in residence at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival their residency generously supported by Performing Arts Fund NL, one of the most important grant-making organisations for music, dance and theatre in the Netherlands.

An English-language opera in three acts with an epilogue, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, set to a libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, is loosely based on a series of engravings of the same name by the formidable 18th-century London-born artist and pictorial satirist, William Hogarth.

Stravinsky, in fact, viewed the engravings at a loan exhibition in Chicago in May 1947 but, closer to home, you can see them at the Sir John Soane Museum (formerly the home of the neoclassical architect, John Soane) at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn, London WC2A 3BP. Therefore, the 18th-century English setting provided the perfect vehicle for the composer’s fullest immersion into the opera tradition with Stravinsky writing The Rake’s Progress at the culmination of his neoclassical period thereby inhabiting and reinventing musical styles of the past.

A moral tale of significance, the scenario surrounds Tom Rakewell, a respectable young English gentleman who refuses the offer of a good job promising him a dutiful life of conventional respectability. Foolishly, he dumps Anne Trulove to live by his wits alone and, not surprisingly, with the Devil on hand to help, he appears to strike gold at first attempt. However, as the story unfolds one watches him descend into dissolution and madness as the evil presence of Nick Shadow (the Devil in disguise) takes a stranglehold on him. After several misadventures, poor old Tom ends up in Bedlam in the city of London.

Receiving its première at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, in September 1951, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf created the role of Anne Trulove and Robert Rounseville that of Tom Rakewell. The opera arrived in Paris in June of the following year at the Opéra-Comique under the baton of André Cluytens while the American première fell to the New York Met in February 1953 conducted by Fritz Reiner.
But the noteworthy Glyndebourne Festival Opera production dating from 1975 directed by John Cox with fabulous sets and costumes conceived by David Hockney is the one that slumbers, I should imagine, in the thoughts and minds of most opera aficionados in the UK. The cast was admirably led by Leo Goeke as Tom Rakewell and Jill Gomez (Anne Trulove). 

And, by sheer coincidence, Glyndebourne is reviving this iconic production next year offering one the chance of seeing it in over a decade. Czech conductor, Jakub Hrůša, will be in the pit with the London Philharmonic Orchestra while the excellent cast includes American tenor Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell, British bass Matthew Rose as Nick Shadow and British soprano Louise Alder as Anne Trulove.

Now Barbara Hannigan - one of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival artists-in-residence in league with Austrian-born composer Thomas Larcher and British-born tenor Mark Padmore - returns to the Rake (in which she sung one of her earliest major roles) as a conductor, her first foray into opera. She also acted as mentor to the cast of young singers hand-picked from her Equilibrium Young Artists’ programme which majors on gifted performers who have completed their formal training and now find themselves in the first substantial phase of their professional careers.

Touring Europe, the production has been seen at La Monnaie, Brussels (as part of Belgium’s Klarafestival) as well as in Munich, Paris, Dortmund, Dresden and Hamburg. Lock, stock and barrel, it then crossed the Atlantic to take part in the Ojai Music Festival in California (Barbara Hannigan is music director there) before returning to Europe to conclude its summer tour with this single performance at Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

And the cosy and intimate 810-seat concert venue, nestling by the banks of the river Alde, proved ideal for this semi-staged production directed by Swedish-born director, Linus Fellbom, who positioned the Ludwig Orchestra centre stage while members of the Chorus of Opera Holland Park, so well drilled by Dominic Ellis-Peckham, were equally divided either side of it. The team of soloists commanded the forestage and, on a handful of occasions, worked from the auditorium to great dramatic effect.
Welsh tenor, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, put in a comfortable and rewarding performance in the pivotal role of Tom Rakewell (surely, the title-role of Albert Herring beckons?). His clear and articulate voice was heard immaculately while his acting ability matched his musical prowess. Greek soprano, Aphrodite Patoulidou, sang Anne Trulove with tenderness and care that the role demands but in the delicate aria ‘No word from Tom’ - which spurs her on to set out for London to find him - it proved slightly challenging for her in the higher register.

Hailing from Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, Yannis François as Nick Shadow could have beefed up his role a bit to make this deceitful character more demonic looking but in the noted aria ‘Come, master, observe the host of mankind’ he caught the spirit and imagination of the piece that attracted Tom Rakewell hook, line and sinker to his devilish and evil ways.

But setting the stage alight was British-Singaporean mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron as Baba the Turk, the Bearded Lady, who played her part to the full in a burlesque-type performance with costume designer, Anna Ardelius, decking her out in ‘Madame Arcati’ fashion finishing her off with a tight-fitting silver-sequinned head covering. Her aria and monologue ‘As I was saying, both brothers wore moustaches . . .’ was sung divinely.

And proving equally impressive on stage was English-born tenor, James Way, as Sellem the Auctioneer. He looked the part from head to toe sporting a bowler-hat, a tight-fitting buttoned jacket and a flowing black robe-like gown. Conniving, creepy and ever-watchful, he conducted the auction with an air of supremacy (as befitting an auctioneer, I guess) with members of the chorus putting in bids at random while concluding a sale by holding up heavenwards their black-covered bound scores with Stravinsky’s riveting score creating the excitement, pace and nervousness of the auction.

The cast was completed by Cuban-born bass, Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel, who sang deeply and reverently the role of Father Trulove and Keeper of the Madhouse whilst he also appeared as Mother Goose singing falsetto with a nice pair of ‘falsies’ to lure a naïve Tom Rakewell to a night of debauchery.

Without doubt, Stravinsky’s Rake is a marvellous and entertaining score and Barbara Hannigan in the pit brought the best out of her players in the Ludwig Orchestra. She was firmly in control and on top of her game in what turned out to be an exciting and rewarding production that found great favour with a full house judging by their thunderous reception at curtain-call. I greatly look forward to their return to Snape.

Dance with the Devil: He has the last word as Tom Rakewell found out to his cost: No eye his future can foretell / No law his past explain / whom neither Passion may compel / Nor Reason can restrain. Therefore, the moral of this sad and empty tale is: ‘For idle hearts, hands and minds, the Devil finds plenty of work to do.’ 

Ludwig Orchestra (artistic director: Peppie Wierman); Nadia Wijzenbeek (leader); Barbara Hannigan (conductor)
Edo Frenkel (assistant conductor, harpsichord)
Chorus of Opera Holland Park (chorus master: Dominic Ellis-Peckham)
Linus Fellbom (director, design, lighting)
Anna Ardelius (costume design) 
Carolyn Nicholls (wardrobe supervisor)
Theresia Frisk (wigs and make-up concept)
Members of Equilibrium Young Artists’ programme:
Aphrodite Patoulidou (Anne Trulove)
Yannis François (Nick Shadow)
Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Tom Rakewell)
Fleur Barron (Baba the Turk, the Bearded Lady)
Antoin Herrera-Lopez Kessel (Father Trulove, Keeper of the Madhouse and the Whore, Mother Goose) 
James Way (Sellem, the Auctioneer) 
Geoff Spain (production manager)
Danielle Nelson-Tunks (stage manager)
Justin Goad (production electrician)
Riku Rokkanen (surtitle operator)


Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk, England. June 2019
Photograph, Snape Maltings



Tony Cooper

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