tue 25/11/2014

Stravinsky, The Rake's Progress, Glyndebourne | Opera reviews, news & interviews

Stravinsky, The Rake's Progress, Glyndebourne

We're still humming Hockney's sets but are the accents intrusive?

'The Rake's Progress': 'we went out humming the sets and probably always will'
'The Rake's Progress': 'we went out humming the sets and probably always will'

Thirty-five years on and this is still as much David Hockney’s Rake as it is Stravinsky’s or W H Auden’s. How rarely it is that what we see chimes so completely and utterly with what we hear. The limited palette of colours, the precisely etched cross-hatching, the directness and the cunningly conceived elements of parody – am I talking about Hockney or Stravinsky? Two great individualists in complete harmony. So why the disconnection? Is it my admittedly ambivalent relationship with Stravinsky’s dazzling score – so easy to admire, so much harder to love – an imbalance in the casting for this timely revival, or those gaping pauses between scene changes?

I should address this last issue first because things were different in 1975 and the technical practicalities of effecting swift and silent shifts of scene had not really been factored into Hockney’s designs. Nor can modern technology do much about it now, it would seem. His deliciously arresting variations on the Pollock’s Toy Theatre look with its flown cloths and cut-out pieces still relies heavily on other manually moved parts – hence these groaning pauses where the music insists – no, demands – that the narrative speeds attacca from one “etching” to the next. This is the one element where Stravinsky and Hockney are most definitely not in accord. At the very least, the technical team need to work on closing these hiatuses; they are a serious hindrance.

So what of the casting? Well, one tends not to think of accents as too much of a problem in the multi-lingual world of opera but there are some texts – like this one by W H Auden and Chester Kallman – that are so precise, so verbally well tuned, that any distortion in enunciation or inflection blunts the intended effect. So casting a Finn, Topi Lehtipuu (born in Australia and resident in Paris), in the title role is just a little too much impurity for one English gentleman and all the vocal coaching in the world will not eradicate those impure vowels and slightly off-kilter emphases.

That Lehtipuu looks so perfect only adds to the jarring effect of the verbal imperfections. And there is the added problem of a vocal delivery which, though light and pretty in piano, loses focus and support when the voice is pushed. This is a much heavier sing than is often acknowledged and I do wonder if Lehtipuu is simply overparted. He is most effective in the gentle delusions of the final scene where Auden and Stravinsky suddenly and discreetly become heartbreakers and Hockney so brilliantly and chillingly houses the masked inmates of Bedlam in rows of individual pens like so many battery hens. It is perhaps the single most arresting image in John Cox’s production, the other being the scene in which all the trappings of Tom’s redundant life are auctioned off and all hint of colour drains from his world leaving only the auctioneer’s crimson wig as a symbol of what might have been.

It is in that scene, of course, that the deserted Anne Trulove learns that Tom still loves her and it is that love which almost, but not quite, saves Tom from Nick Shadow’s clutches. I shall take from this revival – as I always do from this opera – the sound of the lovely Miah Persson rocking her one true love to sleep to the strains of a lullaby so simple and so deeply affecting that you wonder, as with Mozart, how Stravinsky did it. How can something so intrinsically sentimental simply not be?

Persson’s accent was so well disguised (indeed almost eradicated) as to not prove a problem for me. She looked lovely and sang dreamily, despatching her big bel canto aria “No Word from Tom” with considerable aplomb, even nailing that evil top C which most commentators now suggest was Auden’s fault – a bit of flash to appease the Italians.

The most alarming accent of the evening – Elena Manistina’s Baba the Turk – was the most delicious as if Baba had picked up inflections as well as objects from every exotic clime she visited. And it almost goes without saying – because Nick Shadow is always a scene-stealer – that Matthew Rose was a vocal and physical presence from the moment the Truloves’ garden gate swung open to reveal him, black and cross-hatched as if literally cut out of the shadows.

Vladimir Jurowski predictably relished the 18th century refractions of Stravinsky’s busy score encouraging the tightest rhythms and the most piquant displacements of accent and harmony. The London Philharmonic bassoons got to be stars. And still we went out humming the sets and probably always will.

The strains of a lullaby so simple and so deeply affecting that you wonder, as with Mozart, how Stravinsky did it

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Comments

Very much enjoyed this

Very much enjoyed this review, astute and observes several things about the piece (and the nature of performing it) that most reviewers do not comment on. I just became aware of Topi Lehtipuu, and I think your comments about Tom Rakewell being "a much heavier sing than is often acknowledged" are exactly correct. Anyhow... thanks for a great and observant review.
I attended the performance on Wednesday and was so incredibly impressed by all involved. Matthew Rose really outdid himself as the evil and yet funny Nick Shadow. I really hope to return before the end of the run.
I think it is so harsh to judge these foreign singers in such a way. Their english was astounding (except for Baba's) and I was so impressed. How do our British singers sound when they are abroad. And are they judged so harshly? I loved the performance and think that it must be such a hard opera to pull off. But with this production they have much to help them.

Completely agree Topi's

Completely agree Topi's English is impeccable, in fact I challenge anyone to decipher his non-native status. And, goodness me, look at what we offer the world: Lesley Garrett, Katherine Jenkins, Felicity Lott, cringe, cringe, cringe.
Agreed, Edward and Stephen (and not because I feel any need to back up experienced colleagues). I was there too and wondered if perhaps an announcement should have been made for Lehtipuu's recent indisposition, for I've heard him sing better than just quite well. But the role is surprisingly strenuous, and Langridge, Tear, Hadley and even the first Glyndebourne Tom, Leo Goeke (American?) were better able to push the boundaries (watching the DVD of the 1970s Glyndebourne cast closes the gaps between scenes, a real drawback as Edward says). And Stravinsky's purposefully wrong-footing the singers in his unorthodox stresses does make it difficult for those excellent artists whose first language isn't English. The bottom line, though, is that on the first night the performances weren't as energised or focused as the ones given by the Don Giovanni team the next evening, which struck me as excellent throughout and with absolutely the best Donna Anna (Anna Samuil) and Don Ottavio (William Burden - a strong potential Tom Rakewell?) I've ever heard on a stage. No doubt, as Mary points out, the Rake will spark eventually.
I'm afraid Alice is missing the point about accent. It's got to do with understanding the subtle accentuation of Stravinsky's word-setting, which (Edward is saying, I think, and I agree with him) foreign singers tend not to get, unless their English is immaculate. This isn't ethno-anything, it's a straightforward musical criticism. Lethipuu was weak in this department in important arias like "Since it is not by merit" and "Thanks to this excellent device". His Finnish accent was neither here nor there; it was his Finnish accentuation that led him astray. But maybe, as we've said, he was below par...
I won't see the opera until next week. But I do think it kind of ethnocentric to emphasize so much on singers' accents, especially when their overall diction is clear. The opera world will suffer a great deal if great singers only sing operas written in their native language.
Edward's comments about accent and rhythm are spot-on, also about Lethipuu's doing best in the final scene, where a lighter, lyrical tone prevails. But it may also be true that he was under the weather. At the dress I gather he marked onstage while another singer sang from the wings. The chorus, agreed, were superb. As for the long scene breaks, Stravinsky would have agreed with Seckerson. He was furious about this at the Venice premiere. Covent Garden got it right recently, but only by setting the opera in the Nevada Desert - not ideal for the music's green shoots.
Was at the performance yesterday. Topi Lethipuu, whom I have heard many times, seemed to me to be a little under the weather. I am sure that he will firing on all cylinders soon. Matthew Rose was in glorious vocal form and am sure that his already excellent characterisation will continue to grow. The chorus were outstanding I thought. A great production and a very good performance

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