United Kingdom Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress: Soloists and Orchestra of Scottish Opera, Sian Edwards (conductor), Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 17.3.2012 (SRT)
Tom Rakewell – Edgaras Montvidas
Ann Trulove – Carolyn Sampson
Nick Shadow – Steven Page
Baba the Turk – Leah-Marian Jones
Trulove – Graeme Broadbent
Mother Goose – Karen Murray
Sellem – Colin Judson
David McVicar (director)
John Macfarlane (designer)
The spectre of death looms large over David McVicar’s new production of The Rake’s Progress. In fact, the curtain for the show is an enormous figure of the Grim Reaper looking down on his prey; right from the start, it is clear just where this Rake is going to end up. The figure of death then reappears in some form or other in every scene of the opera, providing an excellent unifying motif to this eclectic, exciting, brash and vigorous realisation of Stravinsky’s finest opera and his longest work. That is to say, death appears in every scene except, significantly, the final scenes of Acts 1 and 3, the scenes where the faithful Ann, decked out in virginal white throughout the show, first purposes and then achieves (?) Tom’s redemption.
McVicar is a Glasgow boy and even though he has since found international fame directing opera, there was an enormous smile on his face when, during the final curtain calls, he received the hearty acclamation of his home town. He is right at home in a piece like this, focusing on a flawed individual brought low by his own appetites and the Mephistophelian designs of his comrade, Nick Shadow. The sets consist of open scaffolding with moveable props that suggest, very effectively, locations as diverse as Trulove’s garden, Tom’s drawing room or the London street. Only in the final scenes in the graveyard and the madhouse are the sets left bare, suggesting the emptiness and loss of what Tom has been brought to. The scene in Mother Goose’s brothel is classic McVicar, complete with cross-dressing, S & M gear and a Shepherdess fetish, and redolent with garish pinks that jar the eye.
The speed of Tom’s fall is evoked with the bastardised communion service he receives at Mother Goose’s feet and the mock wedding before he is given to her. John Macfarlane’s designs bring the whole piece to glorious life, using bright primary colours to dazzle in the London scenes with muted hues suggesting the more restrained morality of Ann’s world. Costumes are very well observed too, evoking the period while allowing for modern mannerisms, much like Stravinsky’s score. Some anarchic touches point up the comedy of the characters too, be it the outrageous cuffs and wig of Sellem, the auctioneer, or the apes that bear Baba the Turk’s sedan chair. As a production it’s both uproarious and deeply serious at once, a compliment under which Stravinsky’s music would be happy to stand up.
The singing is excellent too, especially from Carolyn Sampson as the saintly Ann. Her bright, virginal voice really catches the ear and brings outstanding clarity to Ann’s music. Her great aria at the end of Act 1 is the musical highlight of the evening, bright and gleaming at the top while ringing with authority and clarity, and her lullaby in the madhouse is immensely moving. It takes a while to get used to Montvidas’ (inevitably) accented English, but he sings the part well, the voice containing just enough richness to avoid sounding sparse. Steven Page’s Shadow, bewigged in such a way that drops hints about his demonic origins, is excellent. The voice is rich and authoritative while retaining a seductive edge that reminds us why Tom finds this character so enticing, and his diction is compelling and believable in every scene. His final descent into the grave redeems an ever-so-slightly slack card game scene, the only point in the evening when, for me, the dramatic tension ebbed a little. Leah-Marian Jones revels in the role of Baba, loving every ounce of both the inanity and OTT characterisation inherent in the part. The other roles are brought to life by very good character singers, be it the pedantic Trulove of Graeme Broadbent, the thickly Scottish Mother Goose of Karen Murray or the officious and delicious character tenor of Colin Judson as Sellem. Sian Edwards directs the orchestral forces with transparency and lightness of touch and the chorus, so important in this opera, both sing and act with remarkable clarity and believability.
A very successful evening, then, bringing Stravinsky’s score and Auden’s drama brilliantly to life and reviving perhaps the most successful directorial collaboration that Scottish Opera has.
The Rake’s Progress continues at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal until 25 March, before transferring to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre until 31 March. For full details go to www.scottishopera.org.uk.