Retro-USA Clichés Weaken Staatsoper Berlin’s Rake

GermanyGermany Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress: Soloists, Staatsopernchor, Staatskapelle Berlin /Johannes Debus (conductor), Schillertheater, Berlin, 11.7.2012. (SF)


Trulove: Scott Wilde
Anne: Anna Prohaska
Tom Rakewell: Florian Hoffmann
Nick Shadow: Gidon Saks
Mother Goose: Birgit Remmert
Baba the Turk: Nicolas Ziélinski
Sellem Erin Caves Keeper of the madhouse: Gyula Orendt


Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Set and Costume Design:  Małgorzata Szczęśniak
Light design: Felice Ross
Video: Denis Guéguin
Choir; Frank Flade
Choreography: Claude Bardouil
Dramatic advisor:  Jens Schroth


The first sign that this was a “director’s version” was a gushing announcement from Anna Prohaska and Florian Hoffmann that they were honoured and excited to be taking part in an enactment of the life of the famous author Tom Rakewell (spotlight on said famous author in the audience). Apart from the clash with the plot (Tom ends up insane), it derails the fanfare that opens the piece. That over, we get down to the business of the evening. The Rake’s Progress was Stravinsky’s “Mozart” opera to a libretto by W.H.Auden—a light evening with some beautiful tunes and serious undertones. The story is based on a series of Hogarth illustrations about a naive young man from the country who comes into money and then fritters it away in the big city, abandoning his fiancé and ending up in the madhouse. To this, the opera adds Nick Shadow, really the devil, who engineers this downfall but loses at the end when Tom remembers his original love of Anne.

This production shares much with another I’ve seen from Covent Garden: both set the action in retro-USA, feature an aluminium caravan, and treat the media as a corrupting force (Hollywood or, here, video). Recent news from the City of London suggests that perhaps this is not a story that need to be relocated. More on the production later.

Of the principals, Prohaska and Hoffmann do not have big voices but this suited the scale of the production and the small Schiller Theatre. They both looked the part and performed with commitment. I thought they were especially good in the more lyrical arias. Gidon Saks was perhaps a little underpowered for the part, but some of that might be down to the director’s misconception of the character. In this production, Nick joins in with the decadence which weakens his position. My view is that Nick should be standing back, observing and controlling, which would make him more dangerous. Similarly, the final card scene, in which Saks was particularly intense, was undermined by having him dressed as a cabaret magician—probably because of the line about “the simpler the trick.” The other supporting parts were sung well, with a special mention for excellent tone and a good presence from Scott Wilde, again in spite of some directorial stumbles. Unusually, Baba the Turk was sung by Nicolas Ziélinski, a man, which mostly worked well and emphasised the ridiculousness of Tom’s marriage. The one huge exception was the final chord which should be wonderful but here was unbalanced and, I think, out of tune; not the best way to end the evening.

To me the orchestra under Johannes Debus played well, but did not have that hard-edged precision that Stravinksy needs, and perhaps some of the tempi were a bit soft. One disappointment was a mechanical performance of what should be a lyrical extended trumpet solo, perhaps he was tired after performing the Wolfgang Rihm opera the night before. The chorus held up well and dutifully performed the director’s concepts.

By now, it will be obvious that I’m not a fan of this production. It had some good ideas but plenty of euro-clichés: 60’s USA to represent the countryside, the chorus as an audience watching the drama, distracting busyness, and eroticism based on the Village People from the eighties. One particularly misguided interpretation was to make Anne less of an ideal than the original. She’s a bit too flashy in the opening scene in the country, and when she comes to London to find Tom she’s been overdoing the beer drinking. Perhaps it seemed like a good idea in the studio to show that no-one, not even Anne, is clean (another euro-cliché) but on stage it just weakened the drama. Similarly, Nick feeds the stone-to-bread machine with the “heart” plucked from of one of the dancers and generates meat which everyone tastes. I’m still wondering how that improves on the original.

One distinctive feature was an almost continuous use of live video, with a cameraman as part of the action. Sometimes it was effective at bringing out detail of the action. Much of the time it was distracting, making it harder to concentrate on a singer when things should have been quiet for an aria. The one place it worked very well was when Tom sang a lament straight to camera early in Act 1, where it really brought out Hoffman’s acting. I was also grateful that everything went dark for the final confrontation between Tom and Nick to highlight the tension. On the whole, it was worth turning up for the evening but frustrating, not least because it’s such a wonderful piece. Meanwhile, I remain amazed at directors who believe they can do a better job than Stravinsky and Auden.

Steve Freeman