The Rake's Progress

La Monnaie, Randel, Joshua, Shimell/Renes

La Monnaie, 24 October 2009 4 stars

RakeRobert Lepage's captivating production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress updates the scenario to an early-fifties America defined largely along two axes. Those axes mirror the dual moral worlds the characters inhabit; the innocent rural idyll frames Anna, Trulove, and Tom before-the-fall's decency on the on hand, and the world of superficial Hollywood celebrity symbolises Nick Shadow, Mother Goose and the rest’s moral turpitude on the other.

The production debuted at Brussels' La Monniae in the summer of 2007, travelled to France, America and Covent Garden in 2008, and now makes its way back to Brussels for a second run. Though the cast has had an almost total overhaul since its London run, the original conception has been preserved. Carl Fillion's breathtakingly elaborate (and effective) sets are thankfully in place at the core of the telling. Bustling film sets with Shadow menacing on director's crane, inflatable caravans in the desert, rouge burlesque bedspreads and chorus lines in Goose‘s brothel, a multi-functional swimming pool (used for the retrieval of objects for the auction as well as addendum to Tom and Baba's squabbling), a cinema façade all decked out for Tom and Baba's premiere, all of these enable and enliven the action incredibly well. François Barbeau's costumes are stunning; Baba and Mother Goose’s glittering surfaces contrast with Anna and her father’s hardy dress tellingly, though not laboriously.

The coherence of Lepage's staging is strong. The symmetry of locating the action in the same time and place that Stravinsky and Auden composed the piece in means that the cultural influences that would have inspired their retelling of the Faust myth in terms of one man’s venality for greed and lust, can be directly explored. But the mirroring of Tom's descent into improbity and then finally madness with the sly charisma of Hollywood’s (as mediated by Nick Shadow) cheap thrills and loose morals compellingly re-articulates the essential drives and engines that power the opera. The filmic backdrop also now becomes integrated into the medium of staging too; Boris Firquet's evocative landscape videos add depth and fluidity to Fillion's already cleverly manoeuvred and manipulated sets. The echoing of Tom and Anne's impassioned final arias in Bedlam on the television screen at the back of the room resolve the conceit of Lepage into a stunning cadence of poignancy.

RakeStravinksy's music, of course, is already postmodern and parodic, based as it is on a spirited recounting of eighteenth century operatic forms and language with modern touches deepening the modelling at crucial points. In this sense, Lepage's (whose conception was the result of collaboration with the company Ex Machina in the first place, and has been skilfully reprised for this production by David Lefkowich) own postmodern approach simply adds a layer of interpretation already implied in the organic themes of the work. The production and the piece thus align convincingly as a double parody, a parody of serious, deconstructive intent.

That postmodern feel was captured impeccably by the playing and singing of Lawrence Renes and the house band and chorus. Renes chose some sprightly tempi in the early, rural scenes that really brought out the finesse of the setting, and his phrasing matched his tempi with a confident lightness of touch. Dynamics were in firm control, even if at times I was taken aback by the force of the accents. Later, likewise, the conductor's underpinning of the glamour scenes simmered with flash, with a touch of mordancy always framing Tom's uselessly weak-willed behaviour. The wind section were on top form throughout; their ritornellos in the brothel scene, first glowering, then mischievous, gave the performance a real sparkle and flair. The cellos and violas produced incredibly moving (and ominous) playing in the transition into Tom and Nick's final duet. The cembalo of Jory Vinikour was pin sharp throughout, and then in that climactic ninth scene, where Nick struggles with Tom for his soul, finally condemning him to madness, Vinikour gave a expert demonstration of dramatic accompaniment; the sinister sequences of sevenths and ninths, the uncanny sonorities built up time and again, all of these framed the tension on stage with gripping parallels in the pit.

The cast were strong. Nathan Berg's Trulove robustly set in place an opposition to Nick Shadow's slimy appeal right from the first scene. Carole Wilson and Tania Kross as Mother Goose and Baba the Turk respectively each proved vocally strong, and enthusiastically game for each of the extravagances of character required of them. I had mixed feelings about Tom Randle's protagonist. Though his tenor is expressive enough in terms of tone and feeling, his singing never quite communicated either the sweetness or the strength that were effortlessly expressed by a stunning Rosemary Joshua as Anne, whose lightness and fluent legato were complimented by especially firm coloratura technique in her first act 'love will endure' aria.

RakeI felt Randle's acting, however, conveyed some of the truth of the character. Though his innocence felt too gormless in the first scene, he managed the difficult feat of expressing well the essential emptiness of Tom's character; it is fitting that La Monniae chose a still from the Coen brother's The Man Who Wasn't There to advertise this production. Tom, in Randle's portrayal especially, suffers from simply being without conviction and without taste. That is not to say that Randle did not bring some anger to the assumption; in his scene in the desert, where he is made up as a clown, and indeed later in his mad scene, Randle's acting became a little more nuanced, a little more sure of itself. His singing in those scenes, too, had more of a fluency of character and effect.

I'm afraid his performance paled a little in comparison to his antagonist, William Shimell, as Nick Shadow. Shimell's performance was incredibly subtle; none of the camp, self-conscious gestures you sometimes get in the role, rather he brought a real gravitas, even a confusing gravitas, to the portrayal. You never felt on secure ground with Shadow here, his will could turn at any second, and his disdain (which was always just under the surface, never explicit) for Tom was powerful. Shimell's singing matched his acting; it was full of weight, power, and menace, without ever losing its unique grace and compulsion to itself. In the last seconds of his final scene just as he descends into hell, Shimell has to wear a red outfit with strips of paper attached that are manically blown to represent the flaming wisps of hell; it is a testament to his fascinating performance that even this cheap (in effect, perhaps not in conception) detail was dissolved in the terror of his flailing, magnificent fury.

An excellent production overall, then, that engagingly preserves the original vision of its director with a stunning recreation that is full of flair and spirit.

By Stephen Graham

Photos by Johan Jacobs

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