The Rake’s Progress

Be deaf to the prude proclaims The Rake’s Progress, the 1951 opera by Igor Stravinsky. Inspired by the 1735 images of William Hogarth, the libretto tracks a youth through sin to insanity.

A 1975 production by Director John Cox and Designer David Hockney has washed up at Bennelong Point as a “New Production” for Opera Australia. After a local touch-up, the costumes and sets do not look tired. The malaise was there from the start in the English disease of gentility.

Where is Bedlam?

Hints of it were there in the early 1960s when the young English artist David Hockney did a suite of etchings based on his own progress through the gay life of the United States. That set aspired to the spirit of Hogarth. The staging retreated into cross-hatching, honouring the form while fleeing the content. With a sexually ambiguous libretto, Auden and Kalman had opened the way with for a descent into the perdition of perversity.

Instead, Hockney achieved a consistent patterning in his sets, and between them and the costumes. The prettiness of this universe of tablecloths is another concession to the sweetness of lower-middle class domesticity, away from which the critic John Berger had hoped Hockney would lead English artists. Worse still, the graveyard scene is from the stockroom while the asylum is clinical, yet kindly. And this, a decade after The Marat/Sade.

The progress hits other speed bumps by bringing up the house lights for five minutes to switch the sets between every scene. The timidity tamed the Brothel scene so that the Mother Goose of Elizabeth Campbell could not seduce the audience with her ravaging of the protagonist, Tom Rakewell.

In that role, John Heuzenroeder sustains the childishness that led his character into perdition. His voice was weakest when lyrical but engaging at emotional extremes.

Much the same was true for Leanne Kenneally as his fiancé, Anne Trulove. Her high point came in the solo scene before she runs away to find Tom. Her portrayal reached distractedness, but further muffled her diction.

Tom has married Baba the Turk, a bearded lady and talking machine. Catherine Carby established that combination of delights, only to let them slip.

Joshua Bloom as Nick Shadow overshadowed the other principals, with saturnine appearance, perfect projection, precision in patter and by realizing the histrionic through understatement. The hollowness of his laughter rang true. Just as the vigor of his timbre needs more colouring, his sardonic manner needed salting with irony.

As auctioneer Sellem, Kanen Breen once more demonstrated his physical and vocal capacities to create vignettes that energise entire proceedings.

In keeping with the production’s suburban reading of the deadly sins, London’s populace displayed more eagerness to possess property than to pleasure each other. This avarice allowed the chorus to shine, providing a passion absent in the pit where exactitude prevailed.

Bulletin,  April 2006