Michael Tanner

Sublime Stravinsky

The Rake&rsquo;s Progress; Il signor Bruschino <br /> Peacock Theatre

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The Rake’s Progress; Il signor Bruschino

Peacock Theatre

Just before the opera season gets under way each year, British Youth Opera puts on a couple of operas, or this year three, with three performances each, at the newly comfortable Peacock Theatre, off Kingsway. Few people go, since BYO treats the enterprise as a jealously guarded secret, and makes sure that you need detective skills to discover what and when, and never tells you, even if you’re as well disposed a critic as I am.

This year the show which is really outstanding is their production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, at least the equal of any that I have seen of this problematic work, and in some respects superior. I’d like to march the performers of all opera companies to it, to feel the impact of a performance in which you can hear every word — well, there is the odd casualty, but generally that stands: and not with D’Oyly Carte enunciation, but treating the music as the vehicle through which the dramatic or expressive force of the text is realised. It sounds like Wagner sung by Germans used to until it degenerated into international mush. The impact is extraordinary, with scenes that have often seemed to me too long, or not evidently required at all, taking on a required place in the development of the rake’s progress, broken-backed as that is, thanks to Auden’s ineptitude and infatuation with his own conceits, or perhaps to the differing ideas he and his co-librettist had. Since none of the characters except for Nick Shadow has any character, it is up to the singers and the director, William Kerley in this instance, to give them some. Anne Trulove is a hopeless case, but Rhona McKail, playing her as a dowdy provincial girl, and singing with intensity, does as well as anyone I’ve seen or heard. Her Act I aria was well worth recording, and in the sublime duet in Bedlam she and Nicky Spence, the Tom, were heart-breaking. By the time that duet occurs, we have had two hours of music and action with hardly a moment in which we can feel stirred, mainly because Stravinsky seems more eager to play around in assorted ways than to get down to presenting the story, so our interest has been in ingenuity and wit rather than in anything dramatic. With the graveyard scene, and its marvellously arid harpsichord accompaniment for the game of cards between Nick and Tom, the sudden move to genuine concern takes some getting used to, and when one has, I find that one gets irritated that what should have happened hours ago is only now getting under way. Then Bedlam, for all its uncharacteristically explicit sentiment, is on a scale incommensurate with anything earlier. Still, with a Tom as vivid and plausible as Nicky Spence, a singer of great promise, the unexpected expansion is all the more welcome. Derek Welton, the Nick, is a complete artist, odd to find so mature a figure in a youth opera, but one of those performers you can’t take your eyes off when he is onstage. Apart from Anne’s father, Trulove, as infirm of voice as, in this production, of body, everyone, down to the last chorus member was admirable, and Peter Robinson conducted crisply but without the ruthlessness which many conductors seem to think is the authentic Stravinskyian style.

The previous evening had consisted of two one-act farces by the teenage Rossini: one of them, Il signor Bruschino, was enough for me, but those who stayed the full three-hour course got La scala di seta as well. Not that Bruschino was badly done, but insanely convoluted plots set to brimmingly precocious and heartless music can fairly rapidly satisfy me. And I was soon led to feel, after the superbly played overture — the Southbank Sinfonia, BYO’s regular band, is incredibly polished — that Rossini must be the most difficult composer of any that such an organisation would even consider, and that the best thing would almost always be to decide that, tempting though he may be, he is best left to the seasoned professionals. For everything depends on immaculate timing, immense breath control, and relaxed confidence, qualities which the members of a youth opera are more likely to be aiming for than to possess. So Bruschino had to be taken slightly carefully, and though there were no mishaps, it never began to fizz. There were enjoyable things: the heroine Sofia, taken by Elena Sancho, has charm though she will have more, and a sweet voice but one in which a small ingredient of acid rightly emerged when it looked as if she wasn’t about to get her own way. The odd figure of Gaudenzio, Sofia’s guardian and ponderous mentor, was an interesting characterisation of Michel de Souza, though his Italian is impossibly idiosyncratic. The staging, like that of the Rake, was economical but effective, and if the performers have learnt from it which talents they need to cultivate, it will have served its purpose.