The Auckland Philharmonia’s choice for their opera in concert this year, The Rake’s Progress is a curious beast indeed. Loosely based on a series of paintings by William Hogarth, the libretto was penned by the great Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden and his collaborator Chester Kallman and is one of the few opera libretti outside of Da Ponte or Hofmannsthal that, for me, can stand on its own literary merit. The music was broadly written in the style of an 18th-century opera, complete with detached arias and recitatives, with echoes of Monteverdi, Bellini and (especially) Mozart. If this suggests pastiche, nothing could be further from the truth: the music throughout remains pure Stravinsky.

Eckehard Stier brought genuine authority to the score with a sure grasp of Stravinskian style. In this neo-classical work there was certainly an emphasis on the “classical” – we seemed even closer to Mozart than other performances – but there was an acerbic bite to the music that re-oriented us back to the 20th century. While every detail was deliciously pointed, there was an occasional lack of theatricality. For example, Stier seemed to lose dramatic focus in the long graveyard scene and neither Andrew Goodwin (Tom, the eponymous rake) nor Paul Whelan (the sinister Nick Shadow) had quite the charisma to compensate – the performance here dragged somewhat. I also missed a real sense of affection; so much was witty and clever but rarely could one be emotionally engaged (generally only when Madeleine Pierard as Anne or Liane Keegan as Baba were on stage did one feel this engagement). The Auckland Philharmonia were their usual, rhythmically responsive selves, with particularly gorgeous woodwind playing and superlatively pointed harpsichord accompaniment in the recitatives.

While it was fantastic to hear all of the orchestral detail, my major criticism has to do with the balance of orchestra and singers, particularly in the first act. Even if the nature of the forces isn’t so, most recorded performances give the impression of an almost chamber-sized sound. Here the orchestra certainly didn’t hold back in terms of volume and even from near the front of the stalls the audibility of some of the singers suffered. In the opening duet both Pierard and Goodwin were difficult to hear over the orchestra and as the act went on both exhibited some vocal strain in an effort to just be heard. Perhaps this is just one of the perils of concert performance, with the orchestra positioned directly behind the singers rather than in a pit below them.

I’m on the record several times expressing my admiration for the singing of Madeleine Pierard, and this occasion was no exception. Despite the aforementioned issues with orchestral balance, hers was still one of the most complete role-assumptions on this occasion. Her voice has a unique “ping” in the higher register that is very exciting and her command of the coloratura in the difficult first-act aria was masterful. There was pinpoint accuracy of rhythm and the pitch intervals were judged superbly. She also made Anne into a credible character, a conflicted woman with great strength of will, rather than just the usual milksop. Liane Keegan made an impressive Baba the Turk, both vocally (she sounds like she’d make a perfect Azucena) and with her imposing stage presence. Her interrupted tantrum in Act II and the ensuing resumption of the same in Act III were hilarious, but oddly one also felt great sympathy for her.

The men were somewhat less effective. Andrew Goodwin certainly has all the notes and the right kind of voice for Tom Rakewell but there was a slight beat to the tone that wearied a bit as the opera went on. He was more convincing in the madhouse than the brothel. Paul Whelan started promisingly as Nick Shadow and always had the right kind of sardonic glee in his facial and body language, but what began as warm, authoritative bass singing became a little bawly in the second half. I found myself thinking that the basses could have swapped roles quite happily; I was longing to hear Joshua Bloom’s steadier, more sonorous tone in Nick Shadow’s music (he had the minor role of Father Trulove in this performance). The chorus was outstanding, particularly in their exchanges as whores and “roaring boys”, bringing a brilliant clarity and sense of wit to Auden and Kallman’s words. I must also mention the versatile veteran Helen Medlyn’s star cameo as Mother Goose, gloriously overacted with whip in tow and yet still vocally even throughout her range.

Not just because of the sound balance issues, I couldn’t help but feel that The Rake’s Progress is a slightly odd choice for a concert performance. Without many opportunities for spectacular vocalism, the piece relies on maintaining a crackling theatricality right through which was only intermittently managed on this occasion. In this respect a stage production would probably have been more effective – but the efforts involved in presenting the New Zealand professional première of such a piece deserve commendation.