The Rake’s Progress: Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow, 21st March 2012

As I said in my first post here two weeks ago, I am not primarily here to write opera reviews – but I think a new production by my favourite director is a good excuse for a little one, at least. It also seemed like a marvellous excuse to sit in the front row of the Stalls – especially as in Glasgow these sell for a paltry £38. What a fabulous view we had from there, and what clarity and immediacy of orchestral sound.

The Rake’s Progress has been on my David McVicar wish list for YEARS, and I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that it’s been on his, too. It’s surreal, dark, knowing, sleazy, self-consciously theatrical, and simultaneously historical and modern. All the things he seems, in my experience, to be most successful in evoking on stage.

The visuals of McVicar’s new production, by his regular collaborator John Macfarlane, are contained within a set of wooden frames, evoking the stage of an 18th-century theatre, and are closely inspired by the period and style of Hogarth. But where Hogarth’s 1733 paintings are in muted shades, and the better-known engravings of 1735 obviously monochrome, MacFarlane’s costume designs are grotesque caricatures with hugely augmented wigs, their bold colours dominated by red and black and a vast amount of hot-pink (Anne remains clad in a simple white dress throughout). The sets, however, are more subtle; even the tall trees on the backcloth in the rural idyll of the opening scene are looming and mysterious, while the walls of Tom’s apartment appear to be decorated with storm clouds. The spectre of death, in the form of giant images of a twisted skeleton, is never long absent. Even Mother Goose’s cuckoo-clock contains a grinning skull.

It’s a lively production – choreography by Andrew George, another long-time McVicar collaborator, ensured that the moments of stillness, such as in the madhouse, are thrown into relief. Cast, chorus and orchestra (conducted by Sian Edwards) are uniformly strong and full of energy. Indeed, so spirited was Baba’s scenery-trashing rant that she apparently broke a chair – one upon which Nick Shadow was required to sit later in the scene. I don’t think it was supposed to collapse beneath him.

It was great to see a bit of imagination successfully employed in the casting, too. Ahead of seeing the performance, I’d had reservations about hearing a Tom for whom it was the first-ever attempt at an English-language role (it’s hardly an easy option for a beginner!) and an Anne who I don’t think I’ve previously encountered in anything much later than Bach. In the event, I found I noticed Edgaras Montvidas’s slight accent at first then instantly forgot about it – the Lithuanian tenor delivered Auden’s text as crisply as anybody. And both the compass and the character of Anne were a lovely fit for Carolyn Sampson, who was especially touching in the dialogue with Baba and later in the madhouse lullaby. Steven Page was an attractive, sardonic Shadow and Leah-Marian Jones a glamorous and poised Baba.

The final Glasgow performance was recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3, though sadly Carolyn Sampson was off sick that day. It’s a shame it isn’t being captured on film, as it’s a very visual production – it is a co-production with Turin, though it’s some considerable time before it’s due to pop up there. Scottish Opera’s brief seven-performance run has now moved on to Edinburgh, where it ends this Saturday.

Back south of the border, meanwhile, I’m seeing two more McVicar productions in the space of the next week (both things I’ve seen before – his WNO Traviata and Royal Opera Rigoletto), while yesterday news emerged of a Tristan und Isolde in Vienna in summer 2013 – I haven’t worked out whether this is a repeat of the one he did in Tokyo a year ago. Then my Glasgow travelling companion pointed out his new Elektra in Chicago in October. I’ve never been to the USA, and it’d be a horribly extravagant expedition, but I can’t say I’m not tempted. All that remains to be seen is how much willpower we have!

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