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The Rake's Progress (Bury Court, Farnham) - 'endless delights'

A terrific staging of Stravinsky's opera by some outstanding young artists

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Andrew Dickinson as Tom Rakewell, Madeleine Pierard as Anne Trulove and Oliver Hunt as Father Trulove in The Rake's Progress (Bury Court Opera)
(© John Coke)

Burrow around Britain and you'll find plenty of operas being performed in farmsteads, village halls and back gardens. Some of them are quite good; but few, I'd venture, can hold a candle to the barn on the Hampshire-Surrey border that's currently hosting Stravinsky's devilishly insidious opera.

Bury Court Opera's reputation precedes it. Anticipate a professional cadre, high production values and musical excellence and The Rake's Progress will tick all the boxes. Admirers of Stravinsky's lucent score should not hesitate.

WH Auden's dramatisation of Hogarth's eight ‘Rake's Progress' paintings, written in collaboration with his partner Chester Kallman, is more formally controlled than his indulgent libretto for Britten's Paul Bunyan but it still disconcerts. Stravinsky's wind-heavy orchestration is airy and seductive – less brittle than some of his later work and tonally beautiful – but word torrents were Auden's stock in trade and he didn't hold back from doing the composer's job for him. Yet for all its flaws The Rake's Progress exerts a powerful grip, particularly when it's as well done as this.

An effortlessly assured cast is headed by Andrew Dickinson's wide-eyed, Candide-like Tom Rakewell. The young tenor, a master of stuttering movements and Edward Norton-esque bafflement, has light but well-supported vocal resources that are capable of surprising bursts of power. He is partnered by an equally fine Anne Trulove in the New Zealand-born soprano (and former Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) Madeleine Pierard, dressed as a little-girl-lost in lacy gloves and ankle socks.

'even the floor has secrets'

Simon Lobelson takes a less melodramatic view of Nick Shadow than some baritones, and seems a fraction undercharacterised as a result, but his sinister half-smiles and secure singing are entirely satisfying, as are Oliver Hunt's Father Trulove and Rhonda Browne's magnificently imposing, well articulated Baba the Turk. Indeed, so forthright is everyone's diction that the surtitles are an unnecessary luxury.

Director Aylin Bozok has conceived a bold traverse production that's exquisitely designed by Friedrich Eggert and fabulously lit by Joshua Pharo as two picture-frame stages joined by a 21-metre catwalk. There are pleasures aplenty in a production where even the floor has secrets; but with the audience so close and the stage so wide it's hard to avoid contracting Wimbledon Neck.

Bozok could have done more to guide the eye to this or that spot in her wide environment, but instead there tends to be too much going at the same time. In every other respect, though, it's another inspired staging from the WhatsOnStage Opera Poll winner, packed with felicities and brilliant ideas. In a production where the straightforward rubs shoulders with the elusive, Bozok stages the moment when Tom's property is auctioned off with simple ingenuity.

The excellent 12-strong chorus enhances the action with a superbly choreographed physical presence (movement director Ozer Ercan), while Ada Burke and Jon Shaw are mesmerising as Nick Shadow's silent helpers.

It's unfortunate that the opera's mood-breaking moral epilogue ("Good people, just a moment...") is omitted in order to give tone rather than text the last word, but in other respects this is an exemplary interpretation of the drama, to which conductor Simon Over and the Southbank Sinfonia add an enchanting and well paced account of Stravinsky's score.

- Further performances of The Rake's Progress on 8, 11 and 14 March at Bury Court Opera