Robert Lepage’s 2007 Brussels production of The Rake’s Progress is fascinating on many levels. I think all good opera productions start with the music and this is no exception. Lepage sees a crucial relationship between Stravinsky at the time the work was written (1948) and film and television. It was an era when insubstantial visual imagery was being supported emotionally by pretty impressive music. Lepage works with that idea; setting the work in the 40s and incorporating film and film making imagery extensively. I think this decision also frees up the music. By taking the piece out of the 18th century it becomes possible to take the 18th century out of the piece. For instance, there are elements in the libretto that mimic 18th century street ballads but Stravinsky absolutely avoids writing the kind of phrasing one might expect and quite deliberately breaks up the line. That phrasing is respected here whereas I have often heard a false legato imposed on some of those phrases. In a way, the production is helping the viewer to hear the music differently which is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay an opera production. There are other intriguing relationships between Lepage’s vision and Stravinsky’s. Lepage sees Stravinsky as playing with time in a cinematic way i.e. rendering it non-linear. Lepage seeks to mirror this in the spatial dimension by using some odd perspectives and some cinema devices; notably Anne driving her car in front of a moving backdrop just like a studio movie of the period. There’s a lot going on and it would be tedious to describe it in detail.
The performances are pretty much exemplary. Andrew Kennedy as Tom sings really well and is convincing in the various emotional states Tom progresses through. Laura Claycomb’s Anne isn’t exactly a powerhouse performance but perhaps more than anyone she picks up the magpie like elements in Stravinsky’s writing. She hints jazz when jazz is alluded to and cuts just as easily to an echo of a Bach chorale. It’s quite impressive. William Shimell contributes the steeliness that the show needs to hold it together and is a suitably enigmatic and menacing Nick Shadow. Dagmar Peckova is appropriately flamboyant as Baba the Turk without ever losing plot or musicality Good stuff from the supporting roles too. The music direction of Kazushi Ono is of a piece with the overallconcept, never drifting into a sort of Beggar’s Opera aesthetic but keeping the playing firmly rooted in the 1940s. He is very well supported by the orchestra and chorus of La Monnaie – De Munt.
Benoït Vlietinck’s video direction is excellent. He isn’t afraid to show the whole stage and his angles are well chosen. It’s very close to a “best seat in the house” presentation mostly devoid of gimmicks. He’s helped by an excellent 1080i 16:9 picture (on Blu-ray). The sound is equally good. It’s PCM 5.0 and from the first bars of the Prelude the clarity and immediacy are obvious. (note to record companies – PCM 5.0 is clearly the way to go. Every disc with this option I have heard has been superior to any of the available DTS codecs). The sound balance is also excellent with, for once, the voices not balanced artificially forward. THere are a few useful extras, notably a very interesting interview with lepage. The contents of this are more or less duplicated in an essay in the booklet but they are both worth a look. There are English, French, German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish subtitles.
Note – the images are scans from the Blu-ray booklet hence the unfortunate bar down the middle.