Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century paintings, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic “progress” from blissful ignorance to Bedlam, discarding on the way the ever-faithful and appropriately named Anne Trulove and succumbing to the temptations of Nick Shadow in the guise of the devil. It’s an opera that seems tailor-made for young singers as this third production in just over twenty years by British Youth Opera seems to suggest. With its unflattering acoustic and low ceilings, the Peacock Theatre may not be an ideal venue, but these assured young performers, many still studying at conservatoires and on the verge of shiny careers, put on a highly credible show. Despite occasional problems with diction (Auden and Kallman's libretto would have benefited from surtitles) and orchestral balance, this Rake’s Progress is a fine achievement, its success arising from clearly defined performances that hold the ear and eye throughout its emotionally-charged trajectory.

Pedro Ometto (Trulove), Samantha Clarke (Anne) and Frederick Jones (Tom Rakewell)
© Robert Workman

There’s much to admire too from director Stephen Unwin and designer James Cotterill who place Stravinsky’s morality tale in the 1950s (the decade of its composition) and Georgian London. Sets are unfussy, in some scenes minimal, and make their biggest impact whenever the chorus is involved, such as for Mother Goose’s atmospherically-lit brothel and Sellem’s junk-filled auction. The pace here is impressive too. An uncluttered asylum scene, with its white-clad inmates (as if the angels had already taken the chorus to heaven) brings painful focus to Tom’s descent into madness. But there are some deft and unobtrusive touches too, such as the single lily across the backcloth for the opening garden scene as a symbol of Anne Trulove’s devotion to her feckless lover Tom Rakewell.

Frederick Jones (Tom Rakewell)
© Robert Workman

The cast is led by Frederick Jones as Tom, whose clarion tenor scythed through his notes from opening duet to “death’s approaching wing”, incipient wastrel and insanity all believable and well characterised. His diction proved to be the clearest and his attempt, when questioned, to define love was a touching moment. There was no lack of chemistry between him and Samantha Clarke as a pure-toned and vulnerable Anne Trulove. Her Act 1aria “Quietly night” (with Ana Docolin’s beguiling bassoon) and florid cabaletta (with a fabulous closing top C) were both wonderful – her traversal from despair to determination utterly convincing. Sam Carl made for a debonair and insidious Nick Shadow, pimp to the devil, and gentlemen’s gentleman with a suitably grainy baritone.

Sam Carl (Nick Shadow) and Frederick Jones (Tom Rakewell)
© Robert Workman

Among other roles there’s strong support from Jessica Ouston as a characterful Baba the Turk, who grew in stature and delivered an impressive rage aria straight out of Handel. Iain Henderson brought verisimilitude to the auctioneer Sellem and Thomas Mole, as a youthful and bright-toned Keeper of the Madhouse, gave every indication we would be hearing him in the future.  

A well-drilled chorus excelled as whores and roaring boys and the Southbank Sinfonia (disappointedly with fortepiano rather than harpsichord) was given somewhat tepid direction from Lionel Friend so that Stravinsky’s incisive textures seemed on occasion limp. Judging from what I heard above stage, British Youth Opera is surely flourishing.