Where were the wigs? If you’re going to set The Rake’s Progress in Hogarth’s time (his engravings were published in 1734), the least you should do is cover up the modern-day barnets. And shoes: does a ribbon on a brogue really cut it? The aesthetic of Selina Cadell’s take on Stravinsky’s opera may aspire to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse but it barely leaves the church hall.
Her production need not detain us. It’s a humdrum effort, albeit the work of a distinguished thespian, and shows that stage acting is not necessarily a transferable skill to opera directing. Yet from Cadell’s high-minded programme note you’d think she’d have all the answers.
The success of this Rake – and it is a hugely rewarding evening – arises from the exceptional work of its performers. A clutch of good eggs from the top table of British opera, singers who ought to be dominating our major stages but get edged out by Americans, rose above their physical trappings and delivered the most delicious vocal account of this neo-classical score.
As Tom Rakewell, tenor Robert Murray again played a character he’s too old for (he was Frederic in ENO’s Pirates of Penzance), but it scarcely mattered as his voice is in a terrific place just now. His honeyed English timbre sweetened the Wilton’s air every time he sang. As an actor he inhabited this oddly-defined character (Candide’s bad-apple brother) with sardonic grace but insufficient ambivalence.
Anne Trulove was Susannah Hurrell, a limpid soprano whose reputation currently soars as high as her range, and in the modest environs of the old music hall she poured liquid silver in our ears. Her aria "I go to him" was irresistible. By contrast, mezzo Victoria Simmonds made a meal of Baba the Turk, which is the only way to play her. Energised and strangely alluring, Simmonds sang and flashed her eyes with abandon and a beard on, and delivered WH Auden and Chester Kallman’s text with musical gusto. If only the production had allowed her to indulge in some full-on scenery chewing.
If Jonathan Lemalu‘s gorgeous fruity bass proved a touch too resonant for Stravinsky’s lean, clean lines, he compensated with a masterclass in facial acting. This Nick Shadow personified evil with a half-smile forever dancing on his lips… until the chilling moment it wasn’t there anymore. It was a riveting performance by the New Zealander.
Stephen Richardson was luxury casting for his brief appearances as Trulove and Harry Nicoll‘s Auctioneer likewise did the business, but an eight-strong ensemble of supernumeraries, all excellent singers, were so poorly directed that I felt sorry for them. (Imagine the scene: Bedlam. How to do mad? Smudge your make-up dear and don a paper hat.)
A costumed Laurence Cummings entered into the spirit with some baguette banter and a sure hand on the musical tiller (two on the harpsichord), although why the polished Southbank Sinfonia was not similarly decked in Hanoverian attire is a puzzle. But hats off to Etty Wake for her superb trumpet solo.
The Rake's Progress runs at Wilton's Music Hall until 25 November.