The Rake's Progress is one of Stravinsky's most well known works. Full of pastiche moments, musical parodies, contrast, humour and dark spiritual messages, it is one of my favourite works in the operatic repertoire. It is also an opera that is often highly underestimated in its challenges and contrasts and requires a huge amount of physical and vocal energy from the lead artists to carry it through, with an equal amount from the conductor and orchestra to support and drive them. Too often this opera is cast with lighter voices and a Baroque presentation in mind, ignoring the musical and vocal challenges of Act III or the huge range of vocal strength, flexibility and contrast necessary to really touch the audience. The opera is in three acts and for Tom Rakewell, Nick Shadow and Anne Trulove, each act tests different parts of their vocal and dramatic ability as Stravinsky nods to different operatic eras while maintaining his own unique style. For Tom and Nick, it is a showcase for passion, vocal and dramatic contrast – they are, together, a dramatic tour de force. For Anne, it shows technical versatility, flexibility and grace as she brings pathos to Tom's idiocy. So it was with keen anticipation that I attended the penultimate night of The Rake's Progress at the Royal Academy of Music.

Božidar Smiljanić (Nick Shadow) © Royal Academy Opera
Božidar Smiljanić (Nick Shadow)
© Royal Academy Opera

It is important to note that the RAM theatre is not large, the singers are young and they are still cutting their teeth in operatic experience. One would assume that a 300 seat theatre would be perfect for young singers. However, that is only the case for singers who ignore the pillow-like acoustic and use physicality more commensurate with singing in a 1000 seat theatre. Failure to do so can result in singing to oneself, with a much more reserved vocal and physical performance that fails to carry. The singers and orchestra must therefore be direct, precise and energetic to combat this.

I have seen many productions of The Rake's Progress, and thankfully, unlike the last, this one did not include a vertically challenged man with a strap-on phallus or glitter balls! John Ramster has gone for an economical and more traditional production which is easy on the eyes. The lighting design is simple, sometimes a little light and sparse with the odd spotlight used for dramatic effect. The drama is relaxed and from the very beginning we are presented with a warehouse studio inside of which is a Baroque stage, presenting the characters in Baroque garb performing their own production to a contemporary audience, made of what seems to be madhouse visitors. Mirroring the music on stage by mixing the old with the new was a nice touch. This main set was maintained throughout in various guises.

Gwilym Bowen (Sellem) © Royal Academy Opera
Gwilym Bowen (Sellem)
© Royal Academy Opera

John brought Tom's madness to the stage immediately with madhouse staff checking up on him and by displaying Tom's own physical agonising, suggesting that this warehouse is in fact the Madhouse that we are in from the very beginning. Overall, the cast was strong. For most of Act I, words were not brilliantly received and a lack of energy meant they did not always travel past the proscenium arch, which was a shame. Following the conductor could have been stronger by both the orchestra and cast and while Jane Glover controlled it all well, contrast between the set pieces in energy, volume and tempo were kept to a minimum. Overall I would have liked to have felt more dramatic impetus and energy throughout.

Rhiannon Llewelllyn (Anne Trulove) © Royal Academy Opera
Rhiannon Llewelllyn (Anne Trulove)
© Royal Academy Opera
Rhiannon Llewelllyn as Anne Trulove brought a lovely tenderness to the role that peaked in the Act III lullaby. She possesses a warm tone quality and the voice really shone when she let it go and did not hold back. This voice needs a bigger theatre – she is certainly an artist to follow. Blue-haired Gwilym Bowen was brilliantly camp as Sellem, with an energy that lifted the performance at a point where it needed it, making the auction scene possibly the highlight of the show. It was musically the tightest and dramatically powerful. Claire Barnett-Jones as Baba the Turk looked wonderful, was vocally and dramatically excellent and commanded the stage without ever overdoing it. Lancelot Nomura as Trulove and Katherine Aitken as Mother Goose gave assured performances and a surprise turn came in Ed Ballard as the Madhouse Keeper: a small role but in just a few lines he showed a rich tone quality and good vocal production. One must also mention the chorus which was very strong throughout, providing much needed energy at the relevant points.

Bradley Smith made a good effort as Tom emphasising the simplistic nature of Tom's personality throughout. He was vocally and dramatically rather light for the role, but he carried it well.  However, the singer that stood out the most was Božidar Smiljanić, the English Serbian bass baritone in the role of Nick Shadow.  Here is a singer ready to be on a professional stage. His vocalisation and general performance was very strong and one never got the feeling the role was challenging him. His death scene was very powerful in what is often a fiendishly difficult sing at that point in the opera. All in all, a very good effort from all involved, a good showcase for the students and an entertaining evening for the audience.