Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The Progress of a Rake begins

In fact, for me and my fellow-travellers on the City Lit Opera in Focus course, his progress began a few weeks ago as we crowded into the amazing picture room of Sir John Soane's London house to look at Hogarth's eight paintings: my first ever art-historical lecture, with much assistance from the notes of Hogarth expert Christine Riding (with whom I shared an Aldeburgh pre-Rake event). 'The Soane' is still the same as ever, with the best-informed wardens in London and a limited-entry policy so that you never feel you're sharing the treasures with hundreds of (other) tourists.

It was, however, the set of etchings which inspired Stravinsky and Auden, not the paintings, which is why I've illustrated them throughout alongside comparable scenes in Robert Lepage's Royal Opera production as photographed by Bill Cooper. Lepage is, of course, a director with the greatest sense of visual beauty - on a par with Carsen, and perhaps even more unconventional - and his 1950s update works even better than Carsen's Candide. Perhaps that's because the music operates at a different level: Bernstein was no Stravinsky, though a genius in every other sphere. You really need a conductor with a better sense of rubato, pace and elan than Thomas Ades; having arrived at the Opera House fresh from illustrating Anne Trulove's aria with Upshaw, the Orchestra of St Luke's and Zinman, as well as swathes of Act 2 from Chailly, I didn't find this to soar and sparkle in quite the same way, though there were interesting sounds.

Lepage, at least, gets off to a lively start, and there are some unthought of solutions: the brothel, far removed from Hogarth's Rose Tavern, Drury Lane, as a Hollywood filmset directed by Shadow:

while both Anne and the newly-married Rakewells arrive at the grand opening of 'Tom Rakewell and Baba the Turk' by car: this bearded lady steps from a very different sedan than the one Auden and Kallman had in mind:

The madhouse scene follows Annabel Arden's even more disturbing clinic setting at ENO. The gibbering of the lunatics is kept to a minimum, but the stillness of the Hockney/Cox asylum fitted the music better. Still, there was real contained heartbreak as 'Venus' Anne sings 'Adonis' Tom to sleep, beautifully played out with refined singing from Sally Matthews and Charles Castronovo:

We'd been spoilt at the City Lit by the very best: Upshaw, FLott, Langridge, Hadley, Ramey, Alexander Young. Yet although Matthews's far-back production is odd, she gears up to the top notes excitingly and is always a sympathetic stage presence. Castronovo does the beefier stuff well, though his pathos in earlier stages was hampered by Ades's slow tempi. Relyea came alive in the electrifying graveyard scene, though to be fair Nick's music in Acts 1 and 2 is less interesting than the others' set pieces. Good to hear a quality-voice Baba in Patricia Bardon, silenced in a swimming pool. The chorus weren't a patch on their Glyndebourne counterparts.

Still, what a surprising work it is: if Ades missed the sheer soaring beauty of the first two acts, ineffably done by Jurowski and by Brabbins at Aldeburgh (ingenious Neil Bartlett production-on-a-shoestring), the unremitting gravitas of the last two scenes pulls down the painted illusions, already in tatters. I never cease to wonder at the intelligence and soul of Auden's and Kallman's lyrics, especially in Tom's disaffected aria of Act 2 Scene 1. At the City Lit we only have a class for Act 3: it won't be enough.

PS (Sunday 13) - the reviews of this show I've seen have been unremittingly negative. Were we at the same performance? Christiansen found Ades's 'buoyant' (!) conducting the saving grace, Clements - well, let's pass on him, and Ed Seckerson (haven't even looked up his review yet) told me he was disappointed in Lepage's conceit - and that from a man of the theatre. No-one mentioned the poleaxing impact of the final scenes, which suggests to me that, as Simon Callow wrote in his book on acting, most critics make up their minds before the interval.

Simpler 18th/early 19th sensibilities are reflected in delightful Tom Moore's Irish melodies. I know no other less contrived way of linking to our Irish sojourn, but here he is at Derreen, looking down on a group of music-makers devoted to Rodgers and Hart, whose words are all known by heart by our glamorous grande dame Norah Morrice (the only one with her face to the camera):

Derreen lives on as a country house on the Beare peninsula of south-west Ireland, on this occasion filled with 16 harmonious souls and set in the middle of a lush subtropical garden. Its treasure, apart from the extraordinary setting overlooking Killmackilloge Harbour, is The King's Oozy. With its snaky path winding through a glade of eucalyptus trees and a superabundance of that splendid tree-fern Dicksonia Antarctica, it could be in Australia or New Zealand:

In vivid contrast to this luxuriance are the bare hills around. Knockatee, visible from a very romantic seat in the gardens, is relatively low level but looks imposing:

And it's even grander and bleaker on the heights, the borderland between Cork and Kerry:

Apart from the pleasures of the loveable company, mackerel fishing, hiking, swimming in the harbour and pottering around amiable and quite swish Kenmare, the highlight was a trip from Glengarriff harbour past colonies of seals out to the Harold Peto-designed island garden of Ilnacullin. The setting, with the sugarloaf mountain and the bay behind the stage set of the Italian garden, is dreamlike, and there was hardly anyone there on our late afternoon visit.

Any reason for indulging my love of it here? Only a feeble link to GBS, who worked on Saint Joan while he was staying there.

Finally, the secret's out, if anyone really cares: Rustem Hayroudinoff carried the sop-to-the-public palm of my R3 Building a Library - available to 'Listen Again' on line for the rest of the week - on Rachmaninov's Op. 39 Etudes-Tableaux (we're forbidden, and rightly, to speak of winners: 'this is not Ascot', solemnly declares the BBC):

But as I said in summing up, I'd also have equal need of the weightier, even more philosophical Alexander Melnikov:

Both these pianists see the set as a cycle, Rachmaninov's finest achievement in the solo-piano sphere. Melnikov's disc is of special interest as it includes the near-contemporary songs for Nina Koshetz, also products of the composer's last years in Russia, and his next spate of composing for the piano alone when the well-spring had partly dried up, the Corelli Variations. And now I must get back to that very disc, and polish off a full review of it for the BBC Music Magazine.

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