Three wishes come true in the first revival at Covent Garden of this much-travelled production. One: director Robert Lepage's brilliantly imagined visual feast returns intact, its impact made all the more stunning by the legerdemain transitions between scenes. Two: in the pit Ingo Metzmacher conducts a fresh yet disciplined account, marshalling his forces for this deceptively tricky score with perky pace and relaxed precision. Three: the cast is outstanding, from veteran tenor Graham Clark's cartwheeling auctioneer to Toby Spence's superbly sung and convincingly candid(e) account of Tom Rakewell. (How the light bulb above Leonard Bernstein's head must have pinged to life the day he first heard this score.)
Stravinsky scorned the term ‘neo-classical' to describe The Rake's Progress, but it's hard to see why. The diatonic beauty of his composition suggests a modern Mozart at work, an impression reinforced by the airy, wind-led orchestration – even if, unlike his Pergolesi-infused Pulcinella, the actual music is entirely original.
There is one intractable problem with this opera, though: the libretto. WH Auden and Chester Kallman were men of the page, not the stage, and their overwrought, overwritten text prevents the tale from taking flight. They elaborate every moment to the lexical limit, muscling in on grounds better left to the composer or delegated to directors. The result is a bullying word-torrent to which Lepage, for all his scenic ingenuity, proves unexpectedly submissive. Most of the director's set pieces are near-static in execution, his customary fluidity and physicality thwarted by an onslaught of verbiage that leaves the production stunted at the maquette stage.
Of course, Hogarth's original Rake paintings don't move about much either. But within his frames the eight images can barely contain their teeming mass of life and high emotion, so why not here? The Rake, ironically, is one of Stravinsky's most emotionally honest scores – the darkness of Act 3, for instance, is profoundly affecting – yet for all the visual vividness achieved by the designer, Carl Fillion, the absence of truthful dramatic interplay suffocates the drama. With Lepage, there is little momentum and no soul.
The onstage taker of souls though, Nick Shadow, is magnificently sung by the American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (a name that could spring from Auden's Paul Bunyan). He has a glorious tone and sings with impeccable clarity. Rosemary Joshua brings beauty of line and heartbreaking commitment to the potentially bland role of Anne Trulove, and Patricia Bardon reprises her characterful Baba the Turk with gleeful energy and delectable vocal colour. Her beard is quite fetching, too: more a fashion statement than a quirk of nature.
The dominant voice, though, belongs to Lepage. Much has been written about his concept's celebration-cum-critique of the American dream, with its naked nods to Hollywood (Sunset Boulevard, Giant, even A Nightmare on Elm Street when Frances McCafferty's spirited Mother Goose engulfs Tom within her bed), but how truthfully does it represent the opera Stravinsky wrote? There are problems, such as a logically dodgy shift to London for a movie première and the cut-glass British accents adopted by the all-American characters, but mostly the ideas coalesce into a valid and watchable – though not especially thought-provoking – whole. It works but, as with Tom Rakewell's wishes, there's devil in the detail.