Pacific Opera Victoria

The Rake's Progress

Dates and Venue 12, 17, 19 & 21 November, 8pm, matinée 14 November 3pm | Royal Theatre, Broughton St., Victoria

Conductor Timothy Vernon Director Glynis Leyshon Costume Design Nancy Bryant Lighting Gerald King, Set Design Allan Stichbury Principal Coach Robert Holliston

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson


The Rake's Progress is a sophisticated, witty opera, a delight to the ear and the eye. It was written shortly after the end of World War II when Stravinsky was working at the height of his powers. W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the librettists, were each established poets yet able to write together seamlessly and, moreover, to write to serve the music and the opera.

An opera of ideas, and of course, love, it is also an opera about nature, free will, time, temptation, money and chance. Stravinsky's original inspiration for this "Fable" was the famous set of Hogarth drawings. But this was merely a jumping off point. Incorporated into the tale of feckless youth is the suave and duplicitous Devil of European folklore, a character already used by Stravinsky in The Soldier's Tale shortly after the First World War. Musical references from folk-song, Mozart, Verdi and Monteverdi, literary allusions from classical antiquity to Goethe, and the outré personas of a bearded lady and Mother Goose the Brothel-keeper, are only a beginning to the complexities of this astonishing work.

Pacific Opera Victoria's production springs to life under Timothy Vernon's meticulous baton and Glynis Leyshon's elegant direction. The set by Allan Stichbury is simple, a nest of receding trompe l'oeil boxes which both frame and enhance the action and reflect Gerald King's rich lighting, which has a different palette for each of the scenes or "Chapters." The minimalist line and colour, while potentially laden with layers of reference and meaning, never distract. Within this cool and open atmosphere, Nancy Bryant's costumes present the principals in slender, early-Victorian restraint. But she goes to town with the chorus costumes, pointing up the jokes and zest for life of the text and music. Case in point, Mother Goose: seen from the front, she's straight from a nursery picture-book, from behind, a cut-away skirt reveals scarlet and black. A bit less blatantly, a glimpse of red cloak or shepherdess's crook amongst the tarts and roaring-boys of her establishment play on the folk elements in the music and text.

Obsequious servant and persuasive advisor, Gregory Dahl haunted the stage as Nick Shadow, his masterful baritone subtly charming. As guileless Tom Rakewell, Colin Ainsworth's clear tenor grew from the opening Chapter's artifical pastorale to a deep and moving madness at the end. Lucia Caesaroni sang with passionate confidence, a lovely and true voice for Ann Trulove. The two-dimensional characterization evident from their names was completely foundered by the warmth and expressiveness of the singing. Even wicked Nick was thoroughly emotionally engaged, at least with himself. Vocally and dramatically, Ann's enduring courage and Tom's inate innocence were portrayed so well that their disastrous end was as full of pathos as it was inevitable.

Mia Lennox-Williams (contralto) as Baba the Turk, the bearded lady with the heart of gold, Blaine Hendsbee (tenor) as Sellem, a campy auctioneer, stalwart Chad Louverse (bass baritone) as old Trulove, and Rebecca Hass (mezzo) as Mother Goose all played their parts well and sang with skill and art. The chorus threw themselves into their roles as tarts, townspeople, roaring boys and madmen with enthusiasm. The two non-singing wraiths, Nick Shadow's shadows, were always sinister, never obtrusive.

The orchestra played with precision and clarity. Singers and instrumentalists alike made Stravinsky's spiky, inventive rhythms seem natural and easy, a brilliant accomplishment for all.

Pacific Opera Victoria presents an exceptionally clear and intelligent production of what can become a symbolically over-freighted bore. Simple in outline, stuffed with delightful but never obtrusive wit, bursting with energy and full of warmth, it is a triumph.

© 2009 Elizabeth Paterson