People remain what they are even if their faces fall apart.
I love Stravinsky. I love Auden (in patches). I love the theatre of Robert LePage and I love the music of Tom Adès, and indeed Tom Adès himself almost to infatuation.
So, by rights, I should haved LOVED the Rake’s Progress at the Royal Opera House last night. Music by Stravinsky, libretto by Auden, directed by LePage and conducted by Adès.
It’s a strange work in many ways. Stravinsky’s only full-length opera and written at the very end of his neo-classical period before he embraced serialism, it is decades away from the aural adrenalin of Le Sacre or Petruschka. In many ways it’s a real artefact of its time – the early 50s in America. It’s what I like to call the “eau-de-nil” period – the time of hessian and kidney-shaped dressing tables and Tretchikoff’s Green Lady.
Stravinsky approached Auden and his boyfriend Chester Kallman to write the libretto based on Hogarth’s picture series about the moral collapse of the profligate Tom Rakewell and they came up with a tableau-based script heavily influenced by Brecht.
Brecht cast a long shadow in American theatre in the 50s. Even though he’d pretty much given up writing, concentrating on building up the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in East Berlin, Brecht’s plays from the war years were increasingly performed and his theory of ‘epic theatre’ was ubiquitous in playmaking of the period. In Los Angeles where Stravinsky was living at the time, Brecht’s name was less appreciated since he testified quite openly to the Committee of UnAmerican Activities in the late 40s before disappearing from Hollywood back to Berlin. But his influence is apparent on the set pieces of the opera’s libretto and in the emotional distancing created by the classically-framed text and the classical-styled music.
(Interestingly, Histoire du Soldat, Stravinsky’s other most Brechtian work was actually written in 1918, years before Brecht and Weill’s Dreigröschen Oper. So in a way, Brecht is Stravinskoid rather than the other way round. Vera Stegman has an interesting article on this.)
The music is restrained. Modelled throughout on the formal aria-recitive of 18th Century opera, it only balances lightly on the edge of modernity and yet is totally modern.
Interestingly, Lepage-Ades emphasize this emotional frugality perhaps a bit too much. Ades’ conducting (while fascinating) is so precise and crisp that it misses the sonorous largesse that Stravinsky himself gives the score (there’s a great Metropolitan opera recording from 1953). And Lepage’s dazzling theatrical wit struggles with the glacial pace of the action. Having seen so much of his stuff which rattles along like fireworks, it’s odd to see his visual imagery hang so immobile, for so long.
As always the Royal Opera House chorus (my musical betes-noires) manage to spoil any neo-classical restraint with their awful hammy gang-show presence. (Oh, how I long for Robert Wilson to rule them like marionettes.) But Sally Matthews as Anne Trulove manages to soar above the layers of restrain and bring some much needed heart to it all.
I thought that some of that heartlessness was structural – built in by Stravinsky and Auden to the Brechtian machine of the opera – but listening to the Stravinsky recording from the Fifties again, I realise that Igor, like Bertolt, was always breaking his own rules.