Classical: Raking up happy memories

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Scottish Opera’s first production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in almost five decades looks to be a liberating experience for both company and conductor

IT’S been a good week for Scottish Opera. How often can we say that? First there was yesterday’s news that the company is to return to mainstream Edinburgh International Festival duty, after several years of conspicuous absence, with four new mini-operas by Craig Armstrong, James MacMillan, Stuart McRae and Huw Watkins. Then there’s the more immediate golden prospect this weekend of David McVicar’s new production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which opens in Glasgow on Saturday, conducted by Sian Edwards.

There’s a tenuous link between these two pieces of information. The last time Scottish Opera mounted a new production of Stravinsky’s operatic masterpiece – a rich marriage, dating from 1951, of the composer’s acerbic neoclassicism and the punchy rhyming libretto of WH Auden and Chester Kallman – was in 1967 at the Edinburgh Festival, two years after Glyndebourne staged the opera’s UK premiere. It was a watershed moment for the five-year-old company, being its first ever Festival appearance. Festival director Peter Diamand’s decision to commission such a production from Scottish Opera was, in effect, a welcome seal of approval from the man who had supported wholeheartedly Sir Alex Gibson’s vision to create the company in 1962.

In the event, Peter Ebert’s production, conducted by Gibson, evoked a mixed critical response, with most of the concern directed at Ralph Koltai’s abstract stage designs. Yet no-one doubted the symbolic achievement of the fledgling company, the indomitable Peter Heyworth of the Observer even claiming that “when the musical history of those years comes to be written … Scottish Opera may well come to play an increasing part in solving the Festival’s operatic dilemma”. How fortunes come and go.

Apart from a sole revival in 1971, in Stirling’s MacRobert Centre of all places, this week’s new production marks the first return to The Rake’s Progress for Scottish Opera in 45 years. Could it harness the same sense of optimism for today’s slimmed-down company? Hopes are high that it will tick all the critical boxes, not least because of McVicar’s sure-footed influence.

For Edwards, returning to the company for the first time since conducting Judith Weir’s A Night at the Chinese Opera four years ago, and tackling this Stravinsky opera for the very first time, working with McVicar has been an eye opener. “I couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to the piece,” she says, admitting the difficulties she once had with the fact “it wasn’t The Rite of Spring.” “It is, of course, quite different from those very early works with their supercharged expressionism, and not at all like the late works, with their serial terseness.”

What The Rake’s Progress is, of course, is the mature child of Stravinsky’s mid-life neoclassical phase, a highly distinctive style that saw him effectively take models from earlier musical periods, maintain their inner spirit, yet redefine them with what has popularly been described as “wrong-note” harmonies in such classic examples as his ballet Pulcinella, the opera Oedipus Rex, or the delightful neo-Bach concerto grosso Dumbarton Oaks. Which is why the opening moments dart between a blazing fanfare that could be Monteverdi reincarnated, and an opening scene between the protagonists (Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove, with the latter’s father looking secretively on) that sounds like Mozart with 20th-century attitude.

It’s a style of operatic presentation that sits perfectly with the inspiration behind Stravinsky’s biting, though often remarkably beautiful, opera: Hogarth’s eight 18th-century satirical paintings, which the composer first viewed at a Chicago exhibition in 1947.

Hogarth’s images depict the reckless life of Tom Rakewell, son of a rich merchant, who, tempted by the Mephistophelian Nick Shadow, squanders his fortune on luxurious living, whoring and gambling, and ends his life in Bedlam. “The devil finds work for idle hands”, is the old adage sung by Stravinsky’s characters as the final curtain falls.

“Just as these images were central to Stravinsky, Auden and Kallman in creating their opera, I think that what David McVicar said to us all at the outset of this new production – that Hogarth should remain the fount of inspiration – was so important,” Edwards explains.

“Hogarth’s paintings present fascinating ideas: how the world has opened up to someone like Tom and the appalling troubles he encountered as a result; or the Bedlam scene that says so much about the immorality of 18th-century society, with unwanted children thrown on the rubbish heap; or just the fact that it is the story of a couple of people who, although the clock can never be turned back, experience the idea of beautiful, clean love.”

McVicar’s production uses 18th- century costume, adhering to Stravinsky’s instruction that it should be set in that epoch. But there, Edwards reveals, the literalism ends. “David said to us at the outset that there would be no literal concept – ‘let’s make this work as a performance on its own terms; let it be liberating and explorative on a complex human level’.”

Edwards, herself, may be new to this opera, but she has loved working with a cast that includes Scottish Opera favourite Edgaras Montvidas as Tom, singing his first role in English. “He is having tremendous fun with it,” she says. And she is equally delighted to be back with Scottish Opera, who gave Edwards her first ever break into opera in 1986, drafting her in at the last minute to conduct David Alden’s production of Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

“This has been an altogether liberating experience,” she says. “I’ve long had this bee in my bonnet that the art of libretto writing was dead, but discovering what Auden and Kallman produced in response to the composer’s challenge, the tremendous resonance of their libretto, and how Stravinsky just flew with the words to create one of the most beautiful, accessible, lyrical and very charming operas of the 20th century, has been amazing.”

Hopes are high, then, that an opera symbolic of good times at Scottish Opera will work its magic once again.

• The Rake’s Progress opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on Saturday and transfers to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 27 March. For more information, visit