IGOR STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress (complete opera), Blu-ray (2011)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/ The Glyndebourne Chorus/ Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)/John Cox (director)/David Hockney (designer)
Cast: Anne Trulove – Miah Persson/ Tom Rakewell – Topi Lehtipuu/Father Trulove – Clive Bayley/Nick Shadow – Matthew Rose/ Mother Goose – Susan Gorton/Baba the Turk – Elena Manistina
Studio: Opus Arte OA BD7094D [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 Color 1080i HD
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Extras: Behind “The Rake’s Progress”; An Introduction to “The Rake’s Progress”; Cast gallery
Length: 140 minutes Extras: 19 minutes
Stravinsky’s A Rake’s Progress is based on a libretto by W.H. Auden which, in turn, is based on the series of satirical prints by English artist and engraver William Hogarth from 1735. In concept, Hogarth’s work was the earliest form of “graphic novel” and his artwork is largely pen and ink line drawing. The storyline itself is a pretty easy to follow “morality play”. The principal character, the young Tom Rakewell, is a young good looking free spirit who is attracted to Anne Trulove and wishes to marry her. Anne’s father questions Tom’s lack of professional determination and displays some paternal hesitancy about Tom’s desires. Enter a courier, Nick Shadow, with the news that Tom’s all-but-forgotten uncle has passed away; leaving Tom a great fortune.
Shadow takes Tom to London to sign paperwork to inherit his new wealth but, along the way, Nick introduces Tom to the distractions of the big city; including prostitutes, clothiers and many other earthly sources of blowing his money. In a critical – and highly symbolic and satirical – scene Anne tracks down Tom who ends up rebuking her by announcing that he is marrying Baba the Turk who seduces well but is also a bearded lady who is quite possessive! Tom ends up challenging Nick Shadow to win back Anne and start over in a card game that Tom does end up winning. Nick – who we infer is actually the Devil – gets revenge by making Tom insane. Rakewell spends his last days in an asylum thinking that he is Adonis and that his lost love, Anne, is Venus. He dies poor, loveless and witless.
Hogarth used lithography as a medium to make social points (having written and drawn other such stories like “A Harlot’s Progress” and “The Stages of Cruelty”). Auden’s libretto uses the same approach but with a little more humor; coming mainly from the Baba character. Stravinsky’s opera was not an initial success and is still performed only sparingly. Seen as too “modern” for the 1953 Sussex crowd it was written for; too “conservative” for those expecting Stravinsky the modernist.
This production is quite good, though, and invites revisiting the opera as one of Stravinsky’s greatest achievements. Musically, this is Stravinsky in neo-Baroque form with echoes of Pulcinella and Apollon Musagête throughout. There are some very nice arias for Anne and Tom that certainly do resemble Rameau more than Puccini. The score is crisp and accented and attractive but spare. Written in three acts from nine scenes taken from the Hogarth prints, the play moves compactly and nothing lingers any longer than plot acuity demands. Musically, I feel this is a different Stravinsky from The Firebird to be sure but beautiful and attention-keeping none the less.
The performances in this production are terrific. All principals in this fairly small cast are great but special kudos go to the young Finnish tenor, Topi Lehtipuu, as a nearly idiomatic Tom Rakewell and to Matthew Rose as the slimy and convincing Nick Shadow. The forces of the London Philharmonic (downsized) and the Glyndebourne Chorus play wonderfully under the young Russian and LPO music director Vladimir Jurowski. Juroswki’s conducting is captivating unto itself with an angularity but crisp clarity that befit this music perfectly.
The production by renowned artist David Hockney is another reason to check out this production. Commissioned by John Cox in 1975, the set, costumes and backdrop all look – as Cox admits – a bit “off-kilter” but in a visually arresting way. Hockney uses the original Hogarth drawings with their pen-and-ink look to give a “drawn” appearance to everything from trees to buildings to clothing to masks on the chorus. Each scene is practically a lithograph itself. I first saw Hockney as a stage designer in Puccini’s Turandot and became enthralled. This is a wholly different view than that work but equally amazing in my view.
If you have never heard nor seen The Rake’s Progress, this production offers a very satisfying first glance. If you already know it, you may welcome a very visually unusual perception and with a great performance by Topi Lehtipuu.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.