The Rake’s Progress at Opera Australia

This was the famous, and now even historic, production of
Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. First staged in 1975,
the year before Patrice Chereau’s centenary production at Bayreuth of the
Ring heralded the era of scandalous opera production, this quirky little
treat has been greeted at its many revivals and debuts at other houses like a
puppy on Christmas morning. Produced by John Cox with costumes and sets by
the English artist David Hockney, The Rake’s Progress has
notched up thirty years continuous service, making it one of the longest
serving opera productions on the circuit.

As a producer Cox never courted controversy like his contemporaries David
Poultney, David Freeman or Tim Albury. In fact commentators, like singer
turned critic Tom Sutcliffe, even describe him as ‘discreet’. As for Hockney,
as it was for Stravinsky and his librettist W.H. Auden, it was a first foray
into opera. Stravinsky had written operatically styled works before but the
Rake was his first true and full length opera. Auden too had one
libretto to his credit, for Benjamin Britten’s quasi-opera Paul
in 1941 (that few people ever heard again when Britten withdrew
it after a week and forbade further performances until 1976).

“I suppose, if you’re asking me,” you’re wanting
something a bit out of the ordinary.” was Hockney’s reply when Cox
approached him to design The Rake’s Progress. Despite only one
previous theatre design Hockney turned out to be a natural. Being an opera
lover, he absorbed himself with the libretto and music. Hockney’s
preferred working method was to actually design directly to music, listening
to it on his Walkman. Sadly increasing deafness has ended his designing this

The ‘discreet’ Cox was hoping that as “an artist established in his
own right (Hockney) would come in and use the opera as an inspiration.
Naturally the director is supreme arbiter of all questions about what is seen
and done, but when you invite someone like David Hockney to team up with you,
you know you will surrender much of your autonomy,” he admitted.

Auden’s text had been styled on 18th century libretti and Stravinsky
had used 18th century musical forms. As the original idea had come to him
after seeing the paintings of the same name by the artist William Hogarth, it
was only logical that Hockney re-introduce the original visual inspiration.
So he began a close study of Hogarth. Cox was enthusiastic about adopting
Hogarth’s engraving style. “Being a 20th century utilization of an 18th
century technique, it coincided exactly with the sources of Stravinsky’s own
musical inspiration,” he said. “In a way, it was even more exact,
for Stravinsky’s harmonies have an acid-etched quality, yet the first idea
for the opera came from the oil paintings of A Rake’s
. “Stravinsky’s music,” Hockney says,
“was a pastiche of Mozart and my design was a pastiche of
Hogarth.” Stravinsky, incidentally, conceded only reluctantly that his
score was pastiche. “The Rake’s Progress,” he
wrote, “seemed to have been created for journalistic debates concerning
a) the historical accuracy of the approach and b) whether I am guilty of
imitation and pastiche…of Mozart, as had been said.”

Cox and Hockney’s finished product is as cohesive as Stravinsky’s music.
Stravinsky used motifs, quoting them throughout the score as references to
other characters and events as well as developing them into new situations.
In the same way Hockney also links major events. The brothel scene in act one
and the final scene in Bedlam are closely related as places where the hero
Tom Rakewell loses, firstly, his innocence and, lastly, his reason. Similarly
the room in Tom’s house which figures three times, is transformed each time
by significant events in his downfall. The first time it is all elegance and
orderliness dominated by pink, blue and green German printer’s ink colours.
In the second appearance it is dominated with the black and white cross
hatched junk that his wife, Baba the Turk, brings with her. Finally, when he
and Baba are bankrupt and their possessions are being auctioned, it is
drained of colour save for Baba’s, Anne’s and the Auctioneer’s costumes.
Hockney indicating, as Cox recalls, “that as Tom’s misfortunes
increase, so colour departs.”

The only major criticism against the production were the ones leveled
against it in 1975. Glyndebourne historian Spike Hugues recalled “the
grotesque and evil side of the opera was missing …(and)…the scene in
Bedlam was a little bewildering. The composer and librettists wrote a scene
that was closely based on the horror of Hogarth’s picture, and expected
it to look like it…the chorus, dressed in black with a variety of
white masks, occupied a kind of egg-box (or jury-box?) which stretched from
wall to wall of the set. The figures popped up into view from time to time,
sang and popped down again. It was all very symmetrical and clinical, and
was, I think, all going on in Tom Rakewell’s head…It certainly
wasn’t in the composer’s, because he had also included a minuet
in this scene to which he hoped the chorus of lunatics would dance before Tom
‘with mocking gestures’. Nobody danced …there wasn’t
room.” Tom Sutcliffe pointed out that the stark black and white sets
and costumes, both heavily crossed hatched to resemble engravings, hindered
the performers ability to communicate or even be noticed, they “melted
into the environment rather than standing out from it.”

Thirty years on the dÈcor is now the main attraction and the eye soon
adjusts to everything being cross-hatched — right down to the pebbles
that Nick Shadow uses to demonstrate the bogus bread machine. And with a few
minor alterations, the obvious one being the name of the conductor, Richard
Hickox, painted over the spot where Bernard Haitink’s once was. The sets
register well, even in a bigger theatre than the old Glyndebourne. Hockney’s
insistence on spacing the cross-hatching correctly actually improves the look
from further back. Even the garish colours aren’t showing their age.
The only drawback is in the scene changes — thirty years on it is
uncommon to encounter 4-minute scene changes.

This Rake’s Progress is not a difficult score to sing, play
or listen to anymore and this production was originally the vehicle for some
auspicious early appearances. Jill Gomez and Felicity Lott both made their
Glyndebourne debuts in the soprano lead of Anne Trulove within a year of
making their official debuts on any stage. Anne is still a terrific role
debut, this time for Australian soprano Leanne Kenneally. Anne’s big ‘scene’
in Act I and beautiful lullaby in the last scene are superb moments,
beautifully done by Kenneally. Its a pity Tom’s music is not as catchy as
Anne’s and that Nick Shadow, like Don Giovanni, has hardly anything in
the way of an aria proper. But Shadow is an actor-singer’s role and Tom’s is
an all round challenge. This makes the performances by John Heuzenroeder as
Tom and Joshua Bloom as Shadow ideal calling cards as they continue to
establish themselves internationally.

It is the designs, however, that are best remembered; and, considering
that the opera was inspired by a visual source, to be remembered for its
visual appeal seems only logical.

Michael Magnusson

image_description=Rake’s Progress at Opera Australia, 2006 (Photo: Branco Gaica)