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S & H Opera Review

Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress ENO 1 Dec 2001 (JM) – review 2 of 2

The English National Opera team succeeded with a wonderful production of Stravinsky’s The Rake's Progress. The singer-actors under the direction of Annabel Arden were intensely convincing in Stravinsky’s highly artificial, stylised opera - the only full-length opera he wrote. The casting was brilliant and lucky. Small, boyish Barry Banks as Tom Rakewell portrays a man who knows that the world of vice is much more interesting than the financial industry. His singing is light and during his decline into final madness conjures a sense of tragedy.
Banks transgresses his own world with ironic distance, just for fun, inspired by the devilish Nick Shadow, sung by Gidon Saks. Saks’ imposing physical appearance is in stark contrast to Barry Banks’. They make a grotesque pair, which underlines the self-conscious artificiality of Stravinsky’s opera. Obviously Arden was inspired by Jim Carrey’s exaggerated movements in the film The Mask and despite his athletic build Gidon Saks dances like Carrey, which makes it even more impressive. Saks’ singing is superb.

Lisa Milne as Anne Trulove seduced the audience with her beautiful voice, which is full of true emotions and sorrow, particularly when she discovers that Tom is married to the bearded woman. Sally Burgess as the bearded woman Baba the Turk again reinforces the artificiality of the opera and sings with brilliant rage after having been rejected by Tom.

The choir is actively involved in the drama but in the bordello scene Arden used them too statically for my taste. Why should life stop for them just because Tom is singing an aria?
Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting was business like: only in the Madhouse scene did the music start to drag. Interestingly, that is also the moment when the real emotions of Tom’s madness are really portrayed. But I suspect the problem lies with Stravinsky’s compositional style which here becomes too drawn out. He leaves the mood of ironic, stylised distance and a formalistic approach and instead indulges in late Romantic expressionism.

I went into the opera with some trepidation about Stravinsky’s neo-classical mannerisms but I found it absolutely convincing in the highly artificial context of this opera. It has lightness and irony. It underlines the artificiality of the opera. It is highly self-reflective and in that way very personalised Stravinsky.

The well-constructed libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman keeps the dramatic impetus going. It was a wise decision by Stravinsky to get a first class writer involved. Compare that with the bungled fiddling of Prokofiev with Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

ENO’s production of The Rake’s Progress was a very enjoyable evening. I can strongly recommend it.

Jean Martin


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