Taking Risks/The Rake’s Progress

This recently released two DVD set focusses on Barbara Hannigan’s first venture into conducting opera; Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in a semi-staged version featuring the young artists of her Equilibrium mentoring programme and the Gothenburg Symphony. One disk contains the opera itself, the other a documentary by Maria Stodtmeier, called Taking Risks, looking at the creation of Equilibrium and the build up to the Gothenburg performances.


The documentary contains a lot of contextual material about the opera so is, perhaps, best considered first. Hannigan had originally conceived of casting the Stravinsky with experienced singers but decided, with the orchestra’s support, to use it as the basis of a mentoring programme for young artists. And so, Equilibrium was born.


350 applicants from 49 countries were whittled down to 125 invited for auditions in Paris, London, Zurich and Stockholm. Barbara is clear that she was looking for more than singers. She wanted like minded colleagues who wanted to create music with her. Consistent with this, the auditions went beyond the usual process to include career focussed group Q&As with Barbara. It’s at this point one feels that the subtext of Taking Risks is “fear and loneliness on the road”. So much of the discussion looks at how to survive loss of self-confidence, the loneliness of a new city for most of the year, tiredness and the lack of personal support. Anyone who has spent time “on the road” will relate easily to this! 


I think we see a more vulnerable side of Barbara Hannigan in this documentary than in previous films about her that I’ve viewed. The passion and the drive and the almost obsessive perfectionism is still there but there’s also a sense of a higher purpose; serving the craft perhaps, and a real sense of caring about the young people she is drawing into this project and this lifestyle. And much more sense of the toll it takes on her.


The auditions and casting done, we see the rehearsal process but also the other aspects of Equilibrium. Elite sports coach Jacquie Reardon takes the team through exercises to build their ability to perform. Daniel Harding and Nathalie Dessay talk about the strains of the road and the pressure of being “the one they come to see”. The late Reinbert de Leeuw has words of wisdom on “serving the music” even if it involves failure.


There’s a special focus on Aphrodite Patoulidou who will sing Anne Truelove; taking it on, as Barbara did years before, as her first major role. We see her in her room and in rehearsal both with piano and orchestra and feel a real sense of her growing into the role. But perhaps the close should be on Barbara reflecting that she “can get really good at this (conducting opera)” because, after all, “I’m a professional breather”.


All of this leads up to the Gothenburg performance on the second disk. It’s “semi-staged” which in this case means that there is a small stage area in front of the orchestra where the action takes place. The main set element is a cube. The sides are let down to start the opera and reveal Tom and he is once more enclosed in it at the end. He spends pretty much the entire opera in the shell of the cube, even when he’s not in the scene. The second main design element is that all the characters except Tom wear, more or less unrelieved, black whereas Tom appears in various lighter outfits. Coupled with a rather dark lighting plot, this makes for a rather abstract and sombre; perhaps even ritualistic feel. The black clad chorus sing off their scores and although they do enter into the action a bit they really don’t convey an air of revellers and whores. It’s more like a classical chorus commenting on the action.


This is pretty much the polar opposite of David Hockney’s famous Glyndebourne production but it’s effective and ingenious in using very limited resources. For example, the bread machine in Act 2 is actually made up of three members of the cast. There’s economy too in the casting with Erik Rosenius doubling up as Father Truelove and Mother Goose (falsetto) and Zlad Nehme singing both Sellem and the Asylum Keeper.


The performances are really good. William Morgan, as Tom, sings pleasingly and portrays Tom’s psychological decay effectively. Aphrodite Patoulidou is a sweet toned soprano who brings a real sense of pathos to Anne. John Taylor Ward is a very effective and rather sinister Nick Shadow. His transformation from loyal and manipulative trickster to something really malevolent in Act 3 is really well done. Kate Howden’s Baba the Turk s less pantomime than some readings of this part and she seems to have real chemistry with Anne.


Barbara Hannigan’s conducting, of course, is a big part of the show (and she gets quite a lot of camera time). She’s very kinetic and expressive (and is singing along under her breath). It’s clear that she has a good relatioship with the Gothenburg orchestra which plays really well in a reading that brings out the dance like elements in the score very effectively. I don’t think this is the last opera Ms. Hannigan will conduct.


The filming, by Michael Beyer, is unusual. He spends a lot of time away from the action. Sometimes, understandably, he is focussed on Hannigan but there are also a lot of close up shots of instruments and instrumentalists. Maybe he just couldn’t find enough in the limited stage action? Most of that is shot in close up which works fine here because not much is going on on the fringes and it’s often very dark. Where he attempts wider angles the results are mixed because the DVD picture quality becomes pretty murky. The sound quality though is excellent with some real richness to the orchestral sound.


All in all, the two disks together make for interesting viewing with a real sense of how the creative process translates into the finished product. The performance itself, despite staging and technical limitations, is intriguing and enjoyable.


Catalogue number: Accentus ACC20420

This review first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Opera Canada.

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