The Rake's Progress, by Igor Stravinsky, is a simplistic operatic morality tale, based on eight paintings done by William Hogarth in the 1730s. The paintings tell the story of the progressive dissolution of Tom Rakewell, who, upon inheriting a fortune, leaves his devoted fiancé in the country and heads to London in the company of the devil. Stravinsky's opera follows this story faithfully, opening with an idyllic country scene where Anne's father expresses doubt about Tom's future and offers him a job as an accountant. Tom declines, saying he wants to live by luck and wit but shortly Nick Shadow appears and announces that Tom has inherited a fortune (which he must pay for in one year's time) and he must away to London.
Once there Tom falls into the hands of Mother Goose in her house of ill-repute. He agrees to marry a circus freak, a bearded lady, but becomes disillusioned by his life of depravity. Anne turns up to save him but he turns her away as he is now married to another. The story goes on with Tom falling for a scheme involving a machine that can turn stones into bread; he loses the rest of his money, his possessions and his wife who counsels Anne to save Tom. Eventually Tom is lured into a graveyard by Nick the Shadow, the Devil incarnate, who, instead of killing him, makes him gamble for his life. Tom wins but is rendered insane. The story ends in Bedlam with Tom deranged, believing he is Adonis and visited at the end of his life by his faithful Anne, who he believes is Venus. She leaves and he dies. The final scene has the cast joining hands on stage and declaring that the devil will find work for idle hands. The librettist was the English poet WH Auden, who collaborated with Stravinsky and another writer, Chester Kallman, on this work, which premiered in 1951.
All in all The Rake's Progress is simple mythmaking with a clear moral line. The satisfaction for modern audiences lies in the music by Orchestra Victoria and the song, here ably performed by the lead Benjamin Namdarian as Tom and Andrew Collis, as a mature-voiced and very polished Nick Shadow. Tiffany Speight plays Anne Trulove and her father is played by Jerzy Kozlowski.
Although the opera is in English, and this production by Victorian Opera with Orchestra Victoria surtitles some of the lines, from the gods the voices were mostly drowned out by the music so not each detail was available. The set is minimalist, using an oblong pool set in the floor which doubles as a grave and a leaning frame used as a door. Lighting design, creating drama with sweeping floods of colour, is by Matt Scott; the effect is unusual and impressive. Costume and set is by Leon Krasenstein. The costumes are modern and stylish, although the aesthetic with its motifs of red and black and open-hooped hooped skirts is a familiar one.
There isn't depth of character or psychological ambiguity to the story and so it's hard to engage with anything other than the music and song. The scene of debauchery in Mother Goose's London brothel is reminiscent of MTV or Rocky Horror, a stylish but tired interpretation of debauchery which lends a pantomime aspect to the show. If this production of the opera leaned more to that form it might be more entertaining but as it is, it seems to sit uneasily between allegory and the formal constraints of opera and modernity.
Victorian Opera presents
The Rake's Progress
by Igor Stravinsky | libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman
Director John Bell
Venue: Playhouse | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: 17 – 27 Mar 2012
Tickets: $35 – $171