Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress
The Gramophone Choice
Ian Bostridge ten Tom Rakewell Deborah York sop Anne Bryn Terfel bass-bar Nick Shadow Anne Sofie von Otter mez Baba the Turk Peter Bronder ten Sellem Anne Howells mez Mother Goose Martin Robson bass Trulove Julian Clarkson bass Keeper of the Madhouse Monteverdi Choir; London Symphony Orchestra / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
DG 459 648-2GH2 (134' · DDD · T/t) Buy from Amazon
Gardiner’s Rake’s Progress, in all but one respect, easily withstands comparison with its rivals, and in several it surpasses them; if you’re happy with Terfel’s Nick Shadow, it can be set alongside Stravinsky’s own 1964 recording as the finest available. Gardiner is conscious throughout that this is a chamber opera, and the orchestral textures are outstandingly clean and transparent, the rhythmic pointing crisp but airy. This enables his cast to give a fast-moving, conversational account of the text, with every word crystal-clear (including those from the chorus) and no need for any voice to force.
This benefits the soprano and tenor especially. Deborah York sounds a very young and touchingly vulnerable Anne; her voice may seem a little pale, but there’s pathos as well as brilliance in her Act 1 aria, and the desolation of her reaction to Tom’s marriage to Baba the Turk (‘I see, then: it was I who was unworthy’) is moving. Ian Bostridge is the best Tom Rakewell since Alexander Young in Stravinsky’s recording: he too sounds likeably youthful, sings with intelligence and sweetness of tone and acts very well.
Howells is an unexaggerated Mother Goose, and von Otter’s economy of comic gesture is a marvel. ‘Finish, if you please, whatever business is detaining you with this person’ receives the full Lady Bracknell treatment from most mezzos; von Otter gives it the vocal equivalent of a nose wrinkled in well-bred disdain. Terfel often demonstrates that he can fine his big voice down to the subtlety of the other principals, and when he does he’s a formidably dangerous, insinuating Shadow. But almost as often he not only lets the voice rip but indulges in histrionics quite uncharacteristic of the performance as a whole. You may not mind: why after all should the Devil restrainedly under-act? At times, though, he sounds bigger than the orchestra. The recording is close but theatrically atmospheric. There are a few sound effects, though some may find the raucous owl in the graveyard scene distracting.
Andrew Kennedy ten Tom Rakewell Laura Claycomb sop Anne William Shimell bar Nick Shadow Dagmar Pecková mez Baba the Turk Donald J Byrne ten Sellem Julianne Young mez Mother Goose Darren Jeffery bass Trulove Shadi Torbey bass Keeper of the Madhouse Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of La Monnaie – De Bunt, Brussels / Kazushi Ono
Stage director Robert Lepage
Video director Benoît Vlietinck
Opus Arte DVD OA0991D (174’ · NTSC · 16:9 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0). Recorded live at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, in April 2007. Extra features include Illustrated Synopsis, Cast Gallery, Interview with Robert Lepage, Insight into rehearsals, costumes and make-up. Buy from Amazon
Auden first met Stravinsky to discuss the libretto of The Rake’s Progress in Hollywood in 1947, and Robert Lepage winds forward his ‘clock of fashion’ to the time and place of the opera’s composition. Hogarth’s Gin Alley runs into Easy Street, populated by Vegas hookers, dancers and chancers. The composer-sanctioned division into two halves rather than three acts is a complementary move from the conventions of the opera house to the theatre, and what a show we have. Madam, or rather Mother Goose (Julianne Young, bearing a disconcerting resemblance to Julianne Moore), lures the naive Tom onto a heart-shaped satin bed, and the pair literally sink into its folds – before our hero re-emerges, worldly wise and weary, in front of a blow-up Winnebago, and banishes ennui not with mother’s ruin but a line or two of Colombia’s finest.
Andrew Kennedy takes all this in his stride, and his always fresh, appealing tenor ensures we retain our sympathy through Tom’s piteous downfall from indolence to insanity, far more so than we are likely to for his operatic model, Ferrando. From Nick Shadow’s first entrance under the shade of a Dallas derrick to his flame-capped Broadway nemesis, the parallels are not with Dons Alfonso or Giovanni but rather Alberich. This is largely thanks to William Shimell’s iron-black baritone and rasping wit, though lines such as ‘That man alone is free who chooses what to will and wills his choice as destiny’ certainly strike a Wagnerian ring of mania.
The recorded balance is slightly unfavourable to Laura Claycomb in ‘I go to him’: this is her ‘Abscheulicher’, but she is no Leonora, and is happiest vocally when she is dramatically downcast. The two crucial scenes, either side of the interval, between her, Tom and Dagmar Pecková’s show-stealing Baba are models of ensemble writing and direction, pulling between operatic naturalism and Stravinsky’s preferred realism just as Tom is torn between one woman and the other – and all in front of a chorus who change from waltz-time party guests to painfully well observed inhabitants of Bedlam with phenomenal assurance.
Doubtless Kazushi Ono must take credit for some slickly cinematic pacing. This is a show to be seen and, down to the witty, period and silent menu screens, a model of its kind.