Richard Bratby

Hockney’s Rake’s Progress remains one of the supreme achievements

But compared to Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Stravinsky’s opera, premièred a year later in 1951, feels as dated as peas in aspic

Hockney’s Rake’s Progress remains one of the supreme achievements
One production that nearly does send you out whistling the sets: Glyndebourne On Tour's revival of Hockney and Cox's Rake's Progress. [Image: © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Sisi Burn]
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The Rake’s Progress

Glyndebourne On Tour, various venues, until 1 December

Philharmonia/Rouvali

Royal Festival Hall

With Glyndebourne’s The Rake’s Progress, the show starts with David Hockney’s front cloth. The colour, the ingenuity, the visual bravura: 46 years after this production’s first appearance in 1975, it’s still capable of halting you in your tracks. So drink it in. No blockbuster art exhibition will ever give you such ideal viewing conditions, or so much time with a single artwork. And no mock-up or faded video will ever be able to restore to Hockney’s sets and costumes the meaning and the impact that they possess when they’re peopled by living performers and accompanied by Stravinsky’s score. Come for the backdrops, stay for the opera. This is one revival that nearly does send you out whistling the scenery.

You’re certainly not going to be whistling the tunes. The Rake’s Progress is postwar Stravinsky, at the fag-end of his three-decade experiment with neoclassicism. The sudden jags of harpsichord, the laconic bassoon lines, the permanently raised eyebrow: by this stage in the game, there’s a tacit understanding that he’s well past even the illusion of sincerity. Hockney grasped that, and his Hogarth-inspired cross-hatching and deliberately limited palette is a near-perfect visual analogue for Stravinsky’s chugging motor-rhythms and stunted emotional range. Crucially, though, Hockney also supplies the vulnerability that Stravinsky too often withholds (at least until the wrenching final scenes: too little, too unmotivated and too late). Concert performances tend to prove the point: stripped of its visuals, The Rake’s Progress never quite comes off. This is Stravinsky’s only full-scale opera, you keep reminding yourself; the major postwar statement from the definitive 20th-century master. Somehow, you expect more.

Anyway, the point is that the current revival certainly does have visuals — did I mention them? — and it’s a dazzler, looking as bright as ever, and performed with irresistible conviction and wit. I couldn’t say how many of director John Cox’s original actions and expressions have survived since 1975 (Hockney’s front cloth lists him as ‘Producer’ — it’s that old), but Cox is still in charge so I suspect it’s pretty much pristine. It certainly feels that way. There’s a crispness and an appropriateness to every gesture, and the ensembles have a particular playfulness — the chorus quietly stashes itself away in cupboards during the brothel scene, like so much scenery. The actual scenery is less biddable, and the lengthy set changes are the only serious reminder of the production’s age (if they’re this slow in a 21st-century theatre, they must have been longer than Parsifal in 1975).

Still, the action dances along, and the cast is outstanding, with Frederick Jones playing Tom Rakewell as a good-natured naïf, and singing with a purity and sweetness that’s matched, with intense sympathy, by Nardus Williams as Anne Trulove. These two are sundered halves of the same whole, and Williams’s candid, expressive acting succeeded in evoking pity for Stravinsky’s cut-out characters. Rosie Aldridge is ripe and dignified as Baba the Turk; there were quite a few laughs, and she got the biggest. True to form, Stravinsky gives most humanity to the Devil, and Sam Carl sauntered away with the part of Nick Shadow — poised, droll and radiating plausibility, whether cajoling his way around Stravinsky’s mock-baroque courtesies, or using his sulphurous bass-baritone to drain all remaining light from the (genuinely chilling) graveyard scene.

Kerem Hasan conducted briskly but warmly, underlining the moments when Stravinsky teases us with the prospect (however fleeting) of actual emotional commitment. In a revival as good as this, the Hockney/Cox Rake’s Progress remains one of the supreme achievements of modern operatic production. Catch it while you still can because I don’t hold out much hope for Stravinsky in the opera house if and when this staging is finally retired.

The Philharmonia’s new principal conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali (we’re to call him ‘Santtu’, apparently), exhumed Lorin Maazel’s 70-minute orchestral paraphrase of Wagner’s Ring ‘without words’. It’s a maddening, stop-start patchwork that never really gave Rouvali the opportunity (presumably the point of the exercise) to demonstrate his command of long-range musical argument. It did, however, reveal the supercharged translucency of the Philharmonia’s sound under his baton. The strings, in particular, sounded ecstatic; the low brass seemed rather less engaged.

They’d begun with Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, which the programme book reminded us had been premièred by Kirsten Flagstad with this same orchestra in 1950. In 2021, Miah Persson supplied vocal Scandi-chic — clean-lined and sunny but no less affecting for it, and anyway, Strauss provides all the opulence that’s required. Curious to think that these four songs now sound so timeless while The Rake’s Progress, premièred just over a year later in 1951, feels as dated as peas in aspic. The smart money back then was on Strauss’s irrelevance and Stravinsky’s continuing ascent. Possibly Nick Shadow had a hand in that particular wager.