ETO’s insightful, entertaining and high-quality Rake is not to be missed

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, The Rake’s Progress: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera / Jack Sheen (conductor). Hackney Empire, London, 2.2.2024. (AK)

[l-r] Lauren Young (Baba), Nazan Fikret (Anne) and Frederick Jones (Tom) © Richard Hubert Smith

Director – Polly Graham
Designer – April Dalton
Lighting designer – Ben Ormerod
Movement director – Alex Gotch

Anne Trulove – Nazan Fikret
Tom Rakewell – Frederick Jones / Brenton Spiteri (singing from Act II)
Nick Shadow – Jerome Knox
Father Trulove – Trevor Eliot Bowes
Baba – Lauren Young
Mother Goose – Amy J Payne
Sellem – Robin Bailey
Keeper of the Madhouse – Masimba Ushe

It is debatable whether The Rake’s Progress is a neoclassical composition; indeed, scholars disagree on this topic. Ironically, the programme notes for English Touring Opera’s current tour put forward opposing views by two experts in different parts of the booklet. However, without doubt, this fascinating composition­ – Stravinsky’s only full-length stage work and his first major work in English – takes us to eighteenth-century England, as does Polly Graham’s multi-layered staging.

After seeing prints by the English artist William Hogarth (1697–1764) at a Chicago exhibition in 1947, Stravinsky was inspired by A Rake’s Progress, a series of eight paintings (c.1733–5). On the advice of his friend and neighbour Aldous Huxley, Stravinsky asked WH Auden to write a libretto on the theme. The request was granted, the libretto was co-written by Auden and his partner Chester Kallman. Stravinsky received the first draft of the text in 1948 and the opera was finished in 1951. Boosey & Hawkes quickly published the score and the opera was premiered on 11th September 1951 in Venice at the Teatro La Fenice (within the ‘14th international festival of contemporary music’). Stravinsky conducted, and the cast included Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (Anne Trulove) and Otakar Kraus (Nick Shadow).

The eight Hogarth prints/paintings show the rise and fall of young Tom Rakewell. He lives with his pregnant common-law wife in the English countryside but, on inheriting a lot of money, he leaves his wife and moves to London (where he wastes his money on luxuries, prostitutes, and gambling). After losing his money and mind, Tom ends up in a Bedlam. These paintings can be viewed in the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.

Stravinsky keeps the name of Tom Rakewell as well as the general progression to the final ruin. He fully adjusts to his English libretto and creates the musical world of the eighteenth-century. This does include, for instance, Baroque-Classical recitatives and arias with harpsichord accompaniment as well as other references to earlier times, but the musical language is that of Stravinsky with unmistakable Stravinsky rhythms and dissonances.

Polly Graham’s insightful staging combines entertainment with historical and artistic integrity. My architect guest for the evening, not an opera expert, thoroughly enjoyed himself as did all around us in the auditorium. The enjoyment was obvious in the post-performance audience discussions at Hackney train station as well as on the train. Evidently, the joy did not end with the final curtain call.

Six of the eight Hogarth paintings cram many unspecified people into the scenes. Apart from his named roles, Stravinsky adds ‘Whores, Roaring Boys, Servants, Citizens, Madmen’ into his cast list. Within his score he specifies crowds as well as a clattered stage; for instance, his instructions include ‘towns people pouring onto the stage’ (Act II, Scene 2), and ‘the room is cluttered up with every conceivable kind of objects: stuffed animals, birds, cases of minerals, china, glass, etc.’ (Act II, Scene 3).

As Hogarth and Stravinsky, Polly Graham fills her stage with people and objects. Admittedly, there is much to take in while the story unfolds but this extra dimension adds to an exciting theatrical experience.

English Touring Opera’s The Rake’s Progress © Richard Hubert Smith

Whether accidentally or by design, Graham uses some aspects from a ballet (La fille mal gardee) by the great English choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton. The maypole dancing in Graham’s staging is reminiscent of that in the Ashton’s ballet, and so is the huge white plastic horse which, instead of a sedan chair, carries Stravinsky’s Baba the Turk. (The Ashton ballet uses a real-life white donkey carrying protagonists in the plot.). Ashton created English life on his La fille stage, as did Polly Graham for her Rake.

The second Hogarth painting shows a harpsichord player with eigteenth-century wig and costume sitting alongside many people; Stravinsky writes for a modern orchestra but specifies harpsichord or fortepiano for the keyboard. Polly Graham puts the harpsichord and ETO’s fully costumed and wigged harpsichord player (Satoko Doi-Luck) on the stage: I am not sure if this was owing to lack of space in the orchestral pit or independent staging device but for sure it was true to Hogarth.

Under conductor Jack Sheen, ETO’s musical performance was exemplary. Their ensemble work was striking both on stage as well as in the orchestra. A sad example of ensemble excellence was demonstrated by Tom Rakewell’s part performed simultaneously by Frederick Jones and Brenton Spiteri. Prior to the curtains going up we were told that Frederick Jones had just returned from illness. A worrying announcement to hear but Jones sang well, although I thought he might have had a slight cold. However, clearly all was not well and from the second act Spiteri sang from the sides and Jones continued to act on stage: this was a remarkable double act delivered with integrity and quality.

Solo singers, orchestra and chorus would have made Stravinsky happy. For my ears, tenor Brenton Spiteri (when singing Tom) and mezzo-soprano Lauren Young (Baba) particularly captured the essence.

ETO’s Rake is insightful, entertaining and of high quality: do not miss it.

Agnes Kory

For more about ETO on tour click here.

Featured Image: English Touring Opera’s The Rake’s Progress © Richard Hubert Smith

2 thoughts on “ETO’s insightful, entertaining and high-quality <i>Rake</i> is not to be missed”

  1. Many thanks Agnes Kory: an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable review!
    I learnt a great deal about the background and all the history surrounding the opera.
    I am not qualified to speak on the musical qualities but agree all about the excellence of the staging. A most enjoyable theatrical experience!

  2. My wife and I enjoyed this production at The Marlowe in Canterbury. My only so small criticism was the mirrored reflections from the sloping sections of the stage which I found a little distracting, more so if I had been further forward. The dark silhouettes against the black background gave us all a little insight into bedlam. The cast were excellent, particularly Anne Truelove whose voice and range were enchanting and a great move to have the harpsichord player on stage – a real presence. Great review above which has further informed me more of the background to the story.


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