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The Rake's Progress - Igor Stravinsky - English National Opera

On 4 December 2001 I went to the ENO for Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress, with libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. The opera's first performance was in Venice in 1951, amid great enthusiasm. It has recently been updated to 1990s style. The opera was inspired briefly by eight satirical pictures by Hogarth, which Stravinsky saw in Chicago in 1947. The Rake's Progress is one of the masterpieces of Stravinsky's neo-classical period.

And the story goes: Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove celebrate the spring and their love in an Arcadian garden under the watchful eye of Anne's father, who feels that the couple is too young to marry and presses Tom to get a job in the city. Tom reveals that he has other plans for making money. Nick Shadow entered unexpectedly with the extraordinary news that Tom has just inherited a fortune. Tom agrees to go to the city and investigate his inheritance with the efficient Nick Shadow and his servant. Anne feels uneasy, although delighted with Tom's good fortune. The lovers bid a tender but brief farewell as Tom's thoughts are on the excitements of the city that lies ahead.

A motley crowd at Mother Goose's brothel swing into action and toast amorality with pleasure as, "followers of Venus and Mars, Citizens of the temple of delight." Shadow, Mother Goose and a silent collaborator in their intentions (later reveals as the auctioneer Sellem) prompt Tom in the catechism of vice. Only when asked to define love does Tom falter and beg to be released. Shadow tightens his hold by miraculously turning the clock back an hour. Tom is now presented to the company as a would-be and sings of his regret at betraying his true love as he slides inexorably towards a night with Mother Goose. As he is taken to bed, the crowd sings the hunting Lanterloo chorus.

Meanwhile, Anne is alone and has had no news from Tom. She decides that she must leave her father and go to find Tom, inspired by absolute belief that her love would sustain them both and hurries off to the city.

In Act II, Tom is already bored and disillusioned with high living. Shadow enters with a newspaper report about the bearded lady Baba the Turk whom he proposes Tom should marry in order to demonstrate is freedom "from those twin Tyrants of appetite and conscience." Shadow's manipulation is impeccable; Tom is persuaded and roaring with laughter.

Anne found Tom's house, but is overcome with dread. A crowd of revellers surrounds Tom. Tom, shocked to she Anne, urges her to go home and leave him to his ruined life. A voice emerges; it is Baba demanding that Tom help her to alight. Tom confesses to Anne that Baba is his wife, then follows the trio in which Tom and Anne's desolation is set against Baba's mounting frustration and isolation.

Tom's house is now dominated by Baba's eccentric collection of objects. Baba chatters to Tom about her treasures and colourful past, but he is morose. She appeals to his affections; she is rebuffed and flies into theatrical rage. Unmoved, Tom silences her by dropping the bedclothes on her head. Utterly miserable, he falls asleep. Then enters Shadow with a "bread-making machine" which he demonstrates to the audience. Tom wakes up having dreamed of such a machine, which he imagines, will abolish human poverty. If only he could manufacture and distribute the machine, then he would feel worthy of Anne and redeem himself. Shadow colludes in this fantasy and together they go off to promote the machine in the next ruinous stage of Tom's progress.

In Act 3, Tom's house in overrun by a gloating crowd who have come to auction all Tom's property. Baba remains immobile, exactly where she was left. Anne arrives looking for Tom. Sellem, the mysterious metaphysical auctioneer, begins the grand sale, which culminates in the auctioning of Baba. As the bedclothes covering her are removed she continues to rage from exactly the point that she left off. Off stage, Tom and Nick Shadow sing a sinister ballad. Anne and Baba instinctively draw together and Anne finds an ally. The auction grinds to a halt as Baba restores Anne's hopes, urging her to find Tom quickly before it is too late.

In Mother Goose's brothel - now deserted - Shadow claims Tom's soul and his wages and, assisted by Mother Goose and Sellem, proposes a ritual of suicide at midnight. The clock strikes, Shadow hesitates on the ninth strike and suggests a game of cards to decide Tom's fate. Unexpectedly, Tom wins by clinging to the memory of Anne, twice choosing the Queen of Hearts as his card. Tom's helpless repetition of Anne running through his mind is what saves his life, but Shadow departs in fury and curses Tom with madness.

Tom, now insane and in a madhouse, believes himself to be Adonis soon to be visited by Venus, but the other inmates refuse to participate in his delusion and warn him to "leave all love and hope behind" because no one can escape from the asylum. The doctor, who seems to be a replica of Shadow, ushers Anne and her father in. Anne claims Tom as Adonis and they complete the vows they almost made in the Arcadian garden... the wheel has turned full circle. Anne sings Tom to sleep, bringing him and the other madmen to peace. She and the doctor remain to witness Tom's awakening. As he wakes, he believes the madmen, who insist that Anne was never there and Tom dies of grief.

In the Epilogue, we are returned to the theatre and the ensemble announces the moral of the story. We see Tom's debauched London life through Gidon Saks' larger-than-life Nick Shadow, the demon who lures Tom to his doom. The opera has a modern setting with a touch of the Rocky Horror Show, with homosexual overtones in the relationship between Tom and Nick. The sets are much inspired by the photography of Wegee - there's a real darkness, a sense of decay in the smell of the street. Nick looks like a real gangster villain doubling as a spiv (wide boy) with his flashing eyes, slicked hair like a 40s matinee idol, with eyebrows cocked! !

Barry Banks played the role of Tom Rakewell and Gidon Saks played Nick Shadow. Lisa Milne performed Anne Trulove and Gerard O'Connor played her father. Rebecca de Pont Davies was Mother Goose; Salky Burgess played Baba the Turk and John Graham-Hale performed Sellem.

 

Verinha Ottoni.




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