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Opera on DVD: 'Rake's Progress' from Glyndebourne, Again

This article was first published at The Classical Review on April 2, 2012.

available at Amazon
Stravinsky, The Rake's Progress, T. Lehtipuu, M. Persson, M. Rose, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Glyndebourne Chorus, V. Jurowski

(released on January 31, 2012)
Opus Arte OA 1062 D | 140'
Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 1975 production of The Rake’s Progress is one of the most enduring versions of Stravinsky’s enigmatic opera. Directed by John Cox, with sets and costumes designed by British Pop artist David Hockney, it has been revived many times at Glyndebourne, most recently in August 2010, when this DVD was recorded.

Hockney’s vision has been so compelling, in fact, that the principal competition for this new DVD is a 1977 performance of the original 1975 production, also still available on an Arthaus Musik DVD. That recording was remastered from a VHS version made for TV broadcast, with Bernard Haitink conducting Felicity Lott and Samuel Ramey, most notably, and it is now available at discounted prices. If you own that version, the only reason to acquire the new one is that it records a somewhat expanded staging, since in the intervening years Glyndebourne built a larger theater for its productions.

For his set and costume design, Hockney drew from the series of paintings (later made into iconic engravings) by the 18th-century English artist William Hogarth that inspired Stravinsky and his librettists, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. The sets use lots of cross-hatching for shading, sometimes in garish color and sometimes in print-like black-and-white. The costumes, too, have a similar look, like the wig of Father Trulove, which looks like the cross-hatched mops to be found in the engravings, giving the overall effect of making Hogarth’s prints seem to come to life.

Even before he was invited to design this production, Hockney had made a series of his own etchings updating the story of A Rake’s Progress, relating it to his own stay in the United States. In a bonus feature about the production included on this DVD, Hockney notes that seeing homeless people in New York’s Bowery neighborhood reminded him of the 18th century and the world evoked by Hogarth. “You would never have seen that in London in 1960,” he recalls.

Hockney’s conceit works because it matches so well with how Stravinsky envisioned the opera, a work that apes 18th-century conventions, down to the harpsichord that accompanies the faux-Handel recitatives, given a modern twist: to “re-use the past and at the same time move in a forward direction,” as Stravinsky once put it. He remarked further that the piece, “simple to perform musically but difficult to realize on the stage,” would work as long as the director did not “overplay” the realism of Tom Rakewell’s story. Hockney, for his part, claimed at the time that his approach to designing an opera production consisted of one simple maxim: “My number one rule became ‘Don’t fuck up the music’.” A rule of thumb that perhaps more opera directors should follow.

For those who do not own the earlier version, this performance boasts excellent singing from the three leads. Miah Persson is a lovely, Swedish-blond Anne Trulove, with angelic high notes and sure intonation to handle the dissonances. Richard Taruskin, who famously dissected this opera’s many weaknesses, believed that The Rake’s Progress has survived only because of the power of the music Stravinsky wrote for Anne Trulove. Stravinsky saw Anne not as “a simpering annoyance or a see-through plot mechanism,” Taruskin wrote, “but, quite ingenuously, as an emanation from paradise. She stirred the deepest music in him and redeemed the opera as well as her errant beloved.”

Persson shares many of the same radiant qualities with another great Anne Trulove, Dawn Upshaw (her 1996 recording under Kent Nagano available on Erato; a Salzburg appearance from the same year on a Region 1-only DVD on Image Entertainment; and her 2003 Metropolitan Opera performance available on an own-label CD), and the voice has more power and sheer beauty.

Persson is matched by an equally naive, charming performance from the Australian-born Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu. Another scholar of the opera, Paul Griffiths, wrote that Stravinsky and his librettists replaced the “Hogarthian morality” of the source work with “a Faust narrative.” Consequently, the operatic Tom Rakewell does not simply dissipate his fortune, as Hogarth had him do. Instead, he receives an unexpected inheritance from an uncle, announced by the diabolical Nick Shadow, who proceeds to lead him to ruin and insanity. Lehtipuu gets all of Tom’s wide-eyed innocence, vocally and physically, and is matched by the snarling, snide Shadow of Matthew Rose.

The only reservation is about the less-than-idiomatic English pronunciation of Persson and Lehtipuu, something that is lessened, humorously, by the exaggerated accent of Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina, who makes an exotic Baba the Turk. Of course, the question of understanding the text may be irrelevant. As Taruskin again points out: “No one really understands the Rake libretto as sung. Its verbal beauties are discoverable only on the printed page, or in supertitles. Even when the words are understood, the opera’s plot line remains a problem, coy farrago that it is of Greek mythology, Arabian nights, Augustan oratory, Victorian moralism, dime-store existentialism (the most obvious ‘period flavor’ of all, by now), and opera-queenery.”

Vladimir Jurowski gives a fierce edge of precision and bite in the way he leads the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit. In the background feature included on this DVD, Jurowski admits that the piece has a lot of “18th-century wig powder” about it, but he believes it is at heart a “Russian opera,” and he suspects that he brings something particularly Russian to it.

A somewhat worshipful booklet essay by opera director Mike Ashman summarizes some of the history of this storied production at Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Richard Taruskin, In The Rake's Progress, Love Conquers (Almost) All

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