It’s not often that operas in English get performed in Germany, and so I was somewhat surprised to see such a large and important company as the Berliner Staatsoper taking on Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. This work is often regarded as problematic, because of its bizarre storyline and neo-classical style, and so it was with excitement, but also some trepidation, that I went to Berlin’s Schiller Theater to review the opera.

Gidon Saks as Nick Shadow © Ruth Walz
Gidon Saks as Nick Shadow
© Ruth Walz

As in the Royal Opera House and Robert Lepage’s 2008 production (revived in 2010), director Krzysztof Warlikowski chose to relocate the entire opera to the USA, and bring it into the 20th century. There’s certainly understandable grounds for doing this. Stravinsky was a 20th-century composer and was living in America when he wrote the opera, as were his librettists W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman (Kallman was in fact born in the States). However, there are also problems here that jar somewhat. Both Auden and William Hogarth (upon whose paintings the opera is based) were English, and the story is set in England. This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the libretto itself, which constantly refers to England and London, and Auden and Kallman’s language, which is very British in flavour. As a result the cowboy hats and plaid shirts mean that sight and sound grate against each other somewhat, especially in the opening scene.

However, unlike the ROH production, which turns London into a sparkling portrayal of Hollywood, the sets and costumes, designed by Małgorzata Szczęśniak, relocate the London scenes to a grimy Midwestern brothel, and the debauchery here seems far more fitting to Hogarth’s historic London setting which so inspired Stravinsky. It is in this bleak and somewhat timeless space that most of the opera unfolds, and the locational jarring is soon forgotten. In fact, this acutely visual and relatable tale of Tom Rakewell’s descent into an immoral life is one of this production’s greatest assets, with Nick Shadow leading Tom into unforeseen realms of Rocky Horror Picture Show-like vice, with suggestive transvestite banana eating, nude whip dances, a selection of male and female prostitutes and a few lines of cocaine to boot.

Visually the young cast really look the part. Adriana Kučerová takes on the youthful innocence of Anne Trulove wonderfully, adding to it a corruptibility, as she accompanies Tom on his depraved journey, making this often two-dimensional character truly multi-faceted. Not only that, but she sings this difficult role beautifully, with excellent English. As Tom Rakewell, Stephan Rügamer fits the role wonderfully. Not only is he a tall and attractive tenor, but his voice is wonderfully rich, while still being clear and precise, bridging the gap between the typically English tenor (Peter Pears, Robert Tear, Ian Bostridge, etc.) and the continental style of singers such as Jonas Kaufmann. This is perfect for a role such as this, which requires the sweep of a Verdi aria, but also the precision of a Britten opera in order to really pull it off. Rügamer’s Tom is an innocent but corruptible one, and in his hands the critically symmetrical lines “I wish I had money” and “I wish I were happy” have a poignancy which is so often overlooked. Though only a small character, Erin Caves’ Sellem practically stole the show, with a jovial bounce and Jerry Springer-esque verve which made the auction scene come to life.

It was, however, Gidon Saks who was the real star. I’ve never seen a Nick Shadow such as this and probably never will again. Shadow is the orchestrator of the whole tragedy, and Saks dominates almost every scene both dramatically and vocally, asserting his demonic power throughout. His voice is not only powerful, but nuanced and engaging to listen to. It combines wholly with his impressive dramatic presence and thought-out characterisation of Shadow. It is rare that you see such an impressive actor on the stage at the opera, and that his voice complements and augments this is rarer still.

The Staatskapelle Berlin played Stravinsky’s intricate score impressively, reconciling the simple Mozartean ideas and the more complex Stravinskian elements smoothly. However, the Staatsopernchor were not so equal to the task. In spite of their nice sound they were rhythmically insecure, and the result made even the most sprightly moments sound nervous and clumsy. Rhythm was in fact a problem for all the performers at times, with a few particularly sloppy moments, though these were thankfully few and far between.

Despite the unquestionable quality of certain aspects, certain directorial choices ran contrary to the requirements of the opera, and I’d expected this highly regarded company to be far more together musically than was the case. However, overall this was a particularly interesting production of The Rake’s Progress, and shed new and interesting light on a great many aspects of the opera. Combined with such strong characterisations from such a strong cast, it’s difficult not to be impressed.