A Mightily Refreshing Account of The Rake’s Progress

12/07/2017

aix

Festival d’Aix en Provence [1] Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress: Soloists, English Voices (chorus master: Tim Brown), Orchestre de Paris / Eivind Gullberg Jensen (conductor), Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix, 11.7.2017. (MB)

 © Patrick Berger/artcompress

The Rake’s Progress at Aix © Patrick Berger/artcompress

Cast:
Ann Trulove – Julia Bullock
Tom Rakewell – Paul Appleby
Nick Shadow – Kyle Ketelsen
Nick Shadow 2, The Keeper of the Asylum – Evan Hughes
Trulove – David Pittsinger
Mother Goose – Hilary Summers
Baba the Turk – Andrew Watts
Sellem – Alan Oke

Actors – Antony Antunes, Kirsty Arnold, Nichole Bird, Karl Fagerlund Brekke, Andrew Gardiner, Chihiro Kawasaki, Maxime Nourissat, Jami Reid-Quarrell, Gabriella Schmidt, Clemmie Sveaas

Production:
Simon McBurney (director)
Gerard McBurney (dramaturgy)
Michael Levine (designs)
Christina Cunningham (costumes)
Paul Anderson (lighting)
Will Duke (video)
Leah Hausman (choreography, design assistance)

I thought it was longer than it had been since my most recent Rake’s Progress. When I checked, I discovered that had only been a couple of years or so ago, at the Royal Academy: and very good it was too. Nevertheless, this new Aix production from Simon McBurney proves mightily refreshing. It has something in common with the RAM staging (John Ramster) in that it concentrated on the opera as an opera, rather than the debates surrounding it – although those can surely never be far away from most of our experience, whatever Stravinsky, with typical disingenuousness, might have suggested. But the emphasis and the illumination are different, which is surely just as it should be.

London stands at the heart of this Rake. Not, thank God, in a particularist sort of way: that would be especially absurd for a staging in Provence. This is not only the city of Hogarth, but also the city that was, for all its flaws, indeed in many ways on account of them, until recently the greatest in the world. It destroyed itself in part, of course; its’ greed, both in the eighteenth century and under neoliberalism, rightly provokes revulsion, none greater than that of those who live or have lived there and are not members of the ‘banking community’ and other such delightful trades. But for those of us estranged from our country at the moment, Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’, we know who really did it. We are also able to recognise our city with all the delicious agony of an exile, internal or external, in what we see before us, without collapse into the merely didactic. For the great, indeed diabolical con trick that is capitalism, whether neoliberal or in an early mutation, is in large part the parable here; it always was, whatever Stravinsky or even Auden might have told us. (Repeat after me. Intention is not everything; sometimes it is very little at all.) When Tom goes to London, he goes to the City; he goes to one of those plush, joyless, ‘pleasurable’ towers, from which one may see other towers. He has well-dressed, superficially attractive – very attractive – people fawn over him, change his clothes, transform him into one of them. He is – and this would hit home as strongly as I have ever known it do – ‘weak’, as Ann tells us. Christina Cunningham’s costumes are a profoundly important – and knowingly shallow – contributor to the drama; they make us envious, even complicit, wishing or at least in danger of wishing we were part of the tragedy we know this pleasure garden to be.

When Mother Goose’s establishment comes into view, the emphasis shifts to eroticism that is both blatant and subtle. Again, most of us probably want it, although we know we should not. A subtle orgy might seem a contradiction in terms, at least to those of us on the outside of this world, but Leah Hausman’s choreography really does its work here. Far more is suggested than actually depicted; our minds, our imaginations are made to do the dirty work. Pornography, the pornography of late capitalism, is thus dramatised and accused. I could not help but think of Vittorio Negri’s Constitution of Time. In all the pleasure, the beauty of the young bodies, there is of course neutralisation too. Everything becomes the same; it does not matter whom one chooses, whom one adds to one’s iPhone collection. And so, after Tom has taken his pictures – displayed to the world, as they would be, although in this case on the walls of the set – of his final nubile companion of the evening, Nick Shadow, the capitalist Devil himself, shows him pictures of Baba the Turk. The rest you know – save for the twist here that Baba is now played by a counter-tenor. Her whole life is performance, an act, of course, and this takes its place in her line of publicity strategies. There is no especial jolt to our – or at least to my – understanding; that, I suspect, is part of the point. The auction is full of typical metropolitan ‘style’, that of the empty, expensive sort in which the drama has been mired all along: Mayfair, not Whitechapel.

On the other side, however, Ann seems, and I think probably is, more present than ever. Sometimes, earlier on, she walks past. Tom appears to see her, but does he? And what would that even mean if he did? She is good, a symbol of goodness, but she is not just that; I felt her more as a character than I can remember doing so before. That is partly a matter of Julia Bullock’s tremendous performance, touchingly pure, and with every word readily audible (far from always the case in this role). But it is partly McBurney’s conception too. She is, perhaps, a social critic too, no mere ingénue. There is indeed, as McBurney suggests in a brief programme interview, ‘dans une certaine mesure une figure révolutionnaire’ to be perceived there too. Baba knows that, it seems. She has her own roles to play, but she is convinced by Ann, and actually sends her on her way to attempt, however vainly, redemption.

Before that, moreover, Ann walks through a typical Tube subway, cleverly conjured up with design technology: a bit of that South Kensington pedestrian tunnel to it, actually, although more ‘desolate’, ‘poorer’, to the non-London, or con-comprehending, eye. That actually means more alive, of course; the homeless people and the busker – playing solo trumpet, in a nice touch – are, for us Londoners, for us human beings, the real story, the real tragedy. And in a final, potentially Foucauldian twist, the man running the show in Bedlam is Nick Shadow’s shadow. Madness has of course always been a way to deal with criticism. Had Tom perhaps an inkling of what was going on; or might, at the very least, Ann have helped him enlighten him had he not fallen ‘mad’? The voices in his head are the voices we hear all around us: ‘unelectable’, ‘sensible’, ‘moderate’, and so forth? They are the voices that will do all they can to prevent us making London, not what it was, but what it should have been, could have been, all along – and in many ways still is.

I almost – almost – believed, then, in the ‘love story’ that comes almost sentimentally to the foreground of work and production alike. Bullock played her part in that, of course. So did Paul Appleby’s lovable, lovably weak Tom: the sort of character one knows one should distrust, and yet desperately wishes to do otherwise. He never seemed quite the author of his own actions; which amongst us is, whilst Nick is at play? More than that, though, his sappy tenor proved just as sympathetic and manipulative as Bullock’s crystal-clear soprano. Kyle Ketelsen’s Nick was every bit as persuasive as he should be – and more so. He was reassuringly ‘normal’, ‘as things are’, until one really looked and listened: just like capital itself, and with all the dangerous, often surprisingly understated, attraction it exerts. Evan Hughes proved an excellent shadow to the shadow: the same, and yet different. A more real ‘normality’ was offered by David Pittsinger’s splendidly sane Trulove; or is Trulove just a better actor, the voice of old-school conservatism? Hilary Summers made for a fantastic Mother Goose: ruler of her own world, not least vocally, and with a splendidly naughty sense of genuine fun. Is she not a ‘revolutionary’ in her way, too? Or are we just meant to think so? Andrew Watts made much of Baba’s staginess; how could he not? But there was definitely a human heart beating strongly there; the appeal to her fans is far from entirely to be dismissed. Alan Oke’s Sellem imparted a fine sense of slightly camp insidiousness: all the better to sell Tom’s goods with.

There was a ruthless dryness to much, not all, of Eivind Gullberg Jensen’s conducting which was not only echt neo-classical Stravinsky, but very much of the dramatic idea. The orchestra, both unlike and not unlike Wagner, was telling us something. A delight in contrivance, moreover, fused perfectly with the score’s well-nigh miraculous forging of continuity out of what ‘should’ merely stop and start. Stravinsky’s cellular method here is, in many ways, not so very different either from his late serial masterpieces or, dare I suggest it, The Rite of Spring. The miracle is his – and, in a way, that of capital too. The Orchestre de Paris had its soloistic moments and was for the most part commendably sharp of rhythm. If there was certainly nothing wrong with its performance, though, there was perhaps a slight lack of presence, even of commitment, that slightly detracted from the musico-dramatic whole. Maybe it was as much an acoustical matter as anything else: outdoor performances, notoriously, take a good deal of getting used to. There was certainly no such fault to be found with the singers of English Voices, all of whom played their individually directed performances to a tee. They, like the rest of us, were both enthralled and ultimately destroyed by the game afoot.

Mark Berry

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