Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017
Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Simon McBurney, Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby, Kyle Ketelsen, Evan Hughes, David Pittsinger, Hilary Summers, Andrew Watts, Alan Oke
ARTE Concert - 11th July 2017
To borrow a phrase from Baba the Turk, the rationale behind Stravinsky's neoclassical account of The Rake's Progress is not only perplexing to many, but it can be vexing too. Without some imagination and purpose applied it can - to continue with Baba the Turk's own commentary - show too much devotion towards an ancient flame and end up being, in dramatic and musical terms, nothing more than a souless pastiche of Classical opera mannerisms. In that respect, the opera could even be a self-regarding commentary on it own nature.
When a work seems to be a superficial pastiche or a commentary on itself, it leaves limited scope for a director to do something new or interesting with it, but surely The Rake's Progress offers more potential than Simon McBurney brings to the new production of the opera at the Aix-en-Provence festival? Like his Magic Flute, which appeared at Aix a few years ago and at a few other European opera houses, the use of stage-craft is innovative - this time using an almost entirely computer generated boxed-in surrounding set - but it plays along with the superficiality of the work, illustrating it without finding or bringing any new depth in it.
It's true anyway of course that The Rake's Progress, based on a series of Hogarth 18th century prints, is essentially a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of being swept away by the superficial attractions of money and the dissolute lifestyle that comes with it, its superficial attractions blinding us from where true beauty lies and what life has to offer. On that level at least, as well as on a level that impressed with its open-box immersive visual extravagance, the production design matches the intent of the original. And, regardless of the fact that the Hogarth series is almost three hundred years old, its point about sinful indulgence lacking the true rewards of moral integrity still holds true, even if the times have changed.
Simon McBurney's production design is essentially then an updating of David Hockney's updating of the Hogarth prints in his designs for John Cox's celebrated Glyndebourne production, the world depicted in one of flat paintings come to life. McBurney's version of this world is a fake computer-generated equivalent, projected appropriately on a thin paper wall blank sheet. Nick Shadow is the first person to rip a whole in the wall and step into Tom Rakewell's perfect but dull world, and the fragile nature of this delusion is exposed with further rips and tears, the most damage being done with all the trivial luxury items purchased by Tom's new wife Baba poking through the walls and ceiling.
Aside from images of a stock-market crash and the towers of the City melting down, in essence there's nothing here that really puts any new spin on the dehumanising endgame of materialism, consumerism or capitalism. Rakewell's bread-making machine viewed as nothing more than a brown box hardly scales up the operation to a level where this would have any valid social commentary on the world today, and there's little in the opera anyway beyond platitutes of innocence and virtue in Trulove that suggest that there's any real-world alternative. By merely illustrating it, McBurney's production exposes the thinness of the opera's concept as much its basic morality tale, and the work needs more real engagement with its subject than this.
Musically, as sophisticated as Stravinsky's writing undoubtedly is in its own terms, never mind the cleverness of its appropriation and reworking of its neoclassical reference points, The Rake's Progress still risks coming across as little more than an early model for the West End or Broadway musical. Or worse, as an insincere West End of Broadway musical. I don't think the rather Handel oratorio-like archaic formality of expression of Auden and Kellman's dialogues helps, the libretto often giving the impression of just being clever for the sake of it without really expressing anything that has genuine feeling in it or a belief in the story it tells.
The blandness of the dialogues extends to the characters, who never come to life or show any real personality. Tom Rakewell, Anne Trulove, Nick Shadow; as their allegorical names indicate, they are all ciphers created to fit a predetermined role unenlivened by a sense of humour or irony instead of their natures arising out of their circumstances, behaviour or situations. The singing and dramatic presentation of these caricatures is well handled by Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby and Kyle Ketelsen, but inevitably superficial and mannered, lacking any human interest or purpose. Rather like the work itself, the Aix-en-Provence 2017 production of The Rake's Progress is something that it is easier to admire than truly enjoy.
Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert