British composer Iain Bell’s new opera A Harlot’s Progress enjoyed a very successful world première at the Theater an der Wien this month. The opera, based on a series of paintings by William Hogarth (who also painted A Rake’s Progess), has much going for it. Its chances for being incorporated into modern repertory are good – if people can handle the utterly depressing plot.

Diana Damrau and Christopher Gillett © Werner Kmetitsch
Diana Damrau and Christopher Gillett
© Werner Kmetitsch

First of all, the production by Hans-Peter Frings and Jens-Daniel Herzog is fascinating. Instead of the traditional curtain opening at the beginning of the show, massive wooden doors swing open to reveal the chorus, writhing on the pale floor like a pile of black worms, arms reaching upwards. Occasionally, a few of them rise up from the mass, only to be pulled back into it seconds later. As the lights go on, they become colorful market vendors on the streets of London, who greet young Moll Hackabout (Diana Damrau) as she arrives in London seeking employment. Immediately, she is duped by seedy Mother Needham (Marie McLaughlin) who arranges for her to be “kept” by a wealthy, lascivious old man named St. John Lovelace (Christopher Gillett). Lovelace then violently deflowers Moll as the Londoners look on.

The structure of the work is in six scenes which correspond to Hogarth’s six pictures, plus four musical interludes – each marked with an increase in black “soot” falling from the sky to rest on the ground, symbolizing Moll’s descent into depravity and ruin. And ruined she is, thoroughly and quickly. By the second scene she is jaded, feigning love for Lovelace and sleeping with a thief named James Dalton (Nathan Gunn). By the third she is a common whore showing the initial signs of syphilis. She then falls pregnant and dreams of a fresh start with James in the countryside. James subsequently turns on her and rapes her after giving away her location to Lovelace and the police. After a stint in jail, Moll gives birth to her baby on the street, goes mad from disease and finally dies. At her funeral she is mourned only by her maid, Kitty (Tara Erraught). Lovelace and Needham denounce Moll, saying she was ruined as soon as she set foot in London, and funeral-goers pour liquor on her corpse and debase her coffin. Moll’s daughter, Emily, is brought in to close the show, completing the depressing circle of depravation and ruin by giving London its next victim. Besides the falling ash, each scene is marked by a new wall, progressively penning Moll into smaller and more depressing spaces. The fifth scene even resembles an animal stall, with wooden planks partially white-washed, a wire flap-door and a half-foot of black soot on the ground, calling to mind mud or worse.

Musically, Iain Bell is gifted, and clearly influenced by Stravinsky and Britten. There is ample use of soundscapes and uneasy dissonance. Through-composed in style, there are numerous arias/arioso numbers and duet/trio-dialogues which move the plot forward, as well choral scenes. The scoring is interesting, though often a bit too vertical for the singers to cut through, which unfortunately affected the clarity of text unilaterally. The Symphoniker, led by Mikko Franck, was played wonderfully but sometimes it needed to be reigned in a bit more so the singers could be heard. The second half is stronger musically than the first, and Moll’s lengthy mad scene and death is brilliant. It could, however, stand some editing: after the climactic denouncement of her child as the “foul fruit of [her] loins” it lost steam, though when Moll finally dies the orchestra produces some of the most beautiful music in the entire work.

Finally, this production is well-cast. Diana Damrau is flawless vocally and effective dramatically. Marie McLaughlin and Nathan Gunn are strong presences on stage, and Tara Erraught deserves to be considerably more well-known than she is, impressing both as an actress and with her outstanding voice.

The only element that may keep this opera from having lasting value is the subject matter, which is tired and predictable. Moll appears on the scene supposedly “innocent”, but after losing her virginity ten minutes later is suddenly servicing men with the jaded skill and heartlessness of a hardened hooker and laughing when her lover stabs a police officer. Where is her character arc? Nobody felt bad for her during her descent into ruin, and her death was a relief. To those who argue that this work is purely allegorical, I would ask where the moral lies. What can we take away from this story other than a fervent wish not to live in 18th-century London?

Let’s hope that the talents of Bell, Frings and Herzog are put to use on a less banal subject for their next endeavor, for which I will be at the front of the line to purchase tickets.