Cox, John


RakesProgressIgor Stravinsky - The Rake’s Progress

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Vladimir Jurowski, John Cox, David Hockney, Miah Persson, Topi Lehtipuu, Clive Bayley, Matthew Rose, Susan Gorton, Elena Manistina, Graham Clark, Duncan Rock | Opus Arte

Although it evidently depends on the opera in question, there is always room nonetheless for a wide range of expression and interpretation in how productions of operas are staged. There are however no hard and fast rules – a baroque opera composed according to very strict musical conventions can take on a new life when subjected to a modern, avant-garde stage production, while relatively modern and difficult works can be opened up by a traditional straightforward staging that reveals their references, origins and underlying intent. Few works however seem so perfectly matched and strike such a perfect balance between the intentions of the opera work and its presentation on the stage as David Hockney’s designs for the classic Glyndebourne production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

The measure of the success of the production is that it was first put on at Glyndebourne in 1975 and, as this 2010 performance at the festival shows, it is still delighting and wowing audiences thirty-five years later and will no doubt continue to be revived for many more years. There aren’t many productions that have that kind of staying power. A modern artist surely not to everyone’s taste, one might expect something relatively avant-garde from David Hockney when called upon to design the set for a 20th century opera, but in reality, his approach almost perfectly mirrors Stravinsky’s method of composition for The Rake’s Progress. Seeking inspiration directly from the source of William Hogarth original drawings made in the 1730s, Hockney’s sets reproduce the intricate cross-hatching in bold, colourful strokes on flat board backdrops – a modern interpretation of a classical design.

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It works so well because, after all, that’s exactly what Stravinsky’s opera does also. Composed in 1951, the composer working in the neo-classical form (before he moved on to serial composition), The Rake’s Progress accordingly plays to the conventions of the 18th century opera. Classically structured into three acts, with three scenes in each, Stravinsky’s 20th century composition even uses recitative with harpsichord continuo and da capo arias in his treatment of a subject that has many resonances with Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni, but has an even a greater range of references to draw from over the subsequent expansions of the form and subject through Donizetti, Rossini and Gounod, to name but a few.

Since it wears its references openly, the names of the characters even reflecting their types – Tom Rakewell leaving behind his beloved Anne Trulove on the instigation of his demonic alter-ego Nick Shadow for a life of dissolution in London – The Rake’s Progress can be an opera that is easier to admire more than to really love. The symmetrical construction of the opera conforms to a predetermined order of the classical subject – a young man, coming-of-age, uncommitted to settling down to a life of domesticity in marriage and a solid career, decides to explore the endless pleasures that life offers, only to find in the end that there’s something to be said for a more simple lifestyle. It’s an A-B-A structure that is even mirrored in the structure of the three scenes in each of the three acts. It’s all very clever but a little dull and constricting, and the opera can consequently be a little static when performed.

There are however compensating factors that prevent The Rake’s Progress from being merely a pastiche that is too clever for its own good. The libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is quite beautiful – direct but allusive and elusive, knowing but hinting at deeper underlying truths. The same can be said of Stravinsky’s score, which doesn’t just reference various styles, but expands on them with extraordinary arrangements that do indeed force you to reflect on the nature of the characters as well as how their lives and relationships are constructed and revealed through opera techniques. The blending together of the libretto with the score through the singing isn’t always perfect – and the moral at the ending is a little trite (il dissoluto punito) – but there are some wonderful and dazzling ensemble pieces with duos and trios that are as good as anything by Mozart. Well, almost.

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What this particular Glyndebourne production has going for it as well, is of course the production by David Hockney and John Cox. If it’s a little static in places, that’s often more to do with the nature of the opera itself, which is more reflection than action, and the decision to adhere closely to the Hogarth arrangements. Every scene however is an absolute delight, breathtaking in some places, with marvellous little touches that bring out the humour of the situations well. Vladimir Jurowski treats the opera very much as a Russian work, while being mindful of its English and international aspects. These are brought out fully in the casting and the singing, which is of fine quality throughout, with Miah Persson and Topi Lehtipuu demonstrating perfect English diction. If their acting performances are unremarkable, it’s probably more a failing with the nature of the opera itself – but there are enough compensating factors in the singing, the staging and the performance to make this a highly entertaining experience.

With the kind of cross-hatching that you have in the production design, the last thing you want is aliasing in the transfer, but the transfer copes very well with only a faint hint of instability in one or two places in the textures of the costumes, particularly tweeds. It’s very minor however, and for me it just drew attention to the fact that the detail of the overall production concept is taken through to the costume design. Otherwise, the full impact of the colourful production is well captured in the High Definition transfer and in the actual filming. LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks capture the detail of the musical performance brilliantly and dynamically. Extra features include a Cast Gallery, a brief Introduction to The Rake’s Progress that contains recent interviews with Hockney and Cox about the production, and a wider look at the opera in a 12-minute Behind The Rake’s Progress featurette.

CapriccioRichard Strauss - Capriccio

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Andrew Davis, John Cox, Renée Fleming, Sarah Connolly, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Morten Frank Larsen, Peter Rose | The Met: Live in HD - April 23, 2011

In a short pre-performance interview before the Live in HD performance of Strauss’ final opera Capriccio, Renée Fleming spoke about the role of the Countess in the opera and, with no false modesty – although she would of course be the star of the piece – said that she considered the opera a true ensemble piece. This is true in more than one sense, for while there are equal roles for the other performers in Capriccio, the Countess no more prominent than any of them, opera itself is, by definition, an ensemble piece, and as an opera about opera, Capriccio really ought to be nothing else.

In that respect at least, Capriccio is a masterfully constructed opera, but you would expect nothing less from Richard Strauss, whose approach to opera I personally find sometimes a little more frustratingly intellectualised than truly emotional or from the heart. Even at his most emotionally intense, in the deep discordant personal trauma of Elektra, every single emotion seems to be dissected and analysed, every note perfectly attuned to the resonance of the mental state of its characters, leaving little room for interpretation or genuine feeling to come through. Strauss’ other most famous operas co-written with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, similarly demonstrate the composer’s ability to portray more than feel character behaviour, each of those operas self-reflexively really saying more about opera and the role of characters in an opera than anything meaningful about life and reality. Well, almost. What redeems all those operas are the little moments of heartfelt truths that are reached and expressed, principally, though the music itself.

One would not expect there to be a great deal of the warmth of life to be found in Capriccio, since the opera is indeed another of Richard Strauss’ intellectual exercises, the entire opera nothing more than a drawing room conversation between rich artists and intellectuals in an elegant Parisian chateau who talk endlessly about one subject; which is more important – words or music? The question comes up between the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier, two guests at the birthday party of a widowed Countess Madeleine at her chateau. Each hoping to win the favour of the Countess, they seek to impress her with their arguments and force her to choose between them, but Madeleine is not swayed, recognising the beauty in both, particularly when they are brought together, each enhancing the other. The theatre director La Roche says that neither of them would have any value were it not for the director to interpret and stage the works, which leads the conversation onto the value of opera, and eventually the Count, the brother of Madeleine, suggests that they should all work together on an opera, the subject of which should be the events of that very evening and the conversation they have all had together.

Capriccio

That sounds like a fairly fruitless exercise on the part of Strauss, writing an opera that is about writing an opera about writing an opera – to say nothing about it having a distinct air of triviality for the time it was written, in Germany in 1942 during the Third Reich – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the qualities of Capriccio are, well, in the opera itself. As Renée Fleming noted, it’s an ensemble piece, and since each of the main characters are practically personifications of Music, Poetry and Drama, it’s the ensemble that is important in a work of opera. The role of the Countess may not seem to be as important as those other elements in the scheme of the composing of an opera – even Monsieur Taupe, the prompter has an important role to play – but she has perhaps the most vital role of all. What that role is isn’t exactly defined and it’s left for the listener to determine what that magic element is, but she could be, in hard-edged practical terms, the financer, or, more mystically, she is in some ways the inspiration, or even the harmony that brings them both together. She is also the audience, on whose reception, personal interpretation and personal identification the success of the drawing together of the various elements counts most. It’s not by chance then that the ending of the opera (and on a notionally dramatic level, her choice of the two suitors), which is left for the Countess to decide, is left open. The ultimate meaning and value of an opera lies with the listener.

It’s appropriate then that the weight of the argument is perfectly balanced on all sides, and this is where the brilliance of Capriccio lies. It opens with a string sextet – the music that is being played for the Countess – and it even stops the music to allow words to be spoken. Each of the characters then has their role, their chance to impress, expressed through the voice and in the words of the singers. Strauss even introduces an actor, Italian opera singers and a ballet sequence – all vital components that may go into an opera, particularly in the ideal of opera (considered to be Gluck here, as elsewhere), and each of them individually show their worth in Strauss’ beautiful flowing compositions. The Met’s production, a single act opera in a period room, itself demonstrates the value of staging, and it’s perfect. But in order for the opera to be more than the sum of its parts, it needs more than just the ensemble bringing them all together. It needs the Countess. It needs the magic. It needs that receptive audience. To be specific, it needs Renée Fleming. And this is the genius of Strauss’ work in Capriccio, in that he knows that the opera work is not complete, is never static – it’s alive. It’s as if Strauss had composed the opera for Renée Fleming, for a singer who in those final moments can bring something unique and special to that vital closing aria where she reaches out to the audience and communicates something ineffable, meaningful and personal. It’s a blissful moment that opens up everything that opera is and should be about.