A recent book on The Rake’s Progress is entitled “The Last Opera”, as if the work is a final summation of a 350 year old form, and opera as descended from Monteverdi to Puccini had run its course. There would be new operas, wrote Auden, but they must break from the past. It is not only in its music that the Rake has a museum quality; the status of the libretto by a major poet, the use of a mythical scenario (Prodigal Son meets Faust), and the importance given to stage spectacle, all found in the 1600s as they are in this opera and this production. And in using canvas flats, cloths and borders, there is overt reference to Baroque theatre.

Frederick Jones (Tom Rakewell)
© Sisi Burn

If Stravinsky and Auden took a backward look to create a modern work, so too did director John Cox and set and costume designer David Hockney in this venerable, widely travelled and much-admired staging. It uses a very restricted colour palette and much cross-hatching. The effect is to create an illusion of the action happening within an etching come to life, which provides both immediacy and emotional distance, as does Stravinsky’s score for this apotheosis of his neo-classical style.

Nardus Williams (Anne Trulove) and Frederick Jones (Tom Rakewell)
© Sisi Burn

The Rake was first seen in a Glyndebourne production when it was two years old, and this 1975 staging has now been revived at Glyndebourne eight times, been seen around Europe and America, and will tour the UK next month for the fifth time. Yet it was clear from audience reaction that many had never seen it, and its freshness is unimpaired. Indeed, when applause burst out at the end of the final scene, but before the closing quintet, it was clear that quite a few did not know the work itself, making that first line of the epilogue “Good people, just a moment” especially apposite.

Sam Carl (Nick Shadow) and Frederick Jones (Tom Rakewell)
© Sisi Burn

But if the staging remains the star, this revival is a strong one, perhaps as impressively cast as any previous tour revival. Frederick Jones seemed born to sing Rakewell, so far did his fine singing and acting make it difficult to recall a more persuasive interpretation. Sam Carl's Nick Shadow was a worthy antagonist, saturnine in appearance and potent in sound. Nardus Williams as Anne Truelove sang beautifully also, if slightly taxed by the Act 1 cabaletta. There is a hint of spinto in the voice, a Truelove en route to Jocasta perhaps. She was very touching in her final act lullaby, the most perfect marriage of text and notes in the score. These three are testament to the standards of Glyndebourne’s Jerwood Artist scheme, as was Baba the Turk (Rosie Aldridge) her voice more substantial than her wispy beard. Daniel Norman’s Sellem drove the auction scene with authority of voice and a suitably overbearing manner. These artists clearly responded well to Cox’s own revival of his own splendid 46-year-old initial production.

Daniel Norman (Sellem) and Rosie Aldridge (Baba the Turk) and the Glyndebourne Chorus
© Sisi Burn

Jack Sandison, an impressively sympathetic Keeper of Bedlam, is a soloist from the company’s superb chorus, and his choral colleagues sang incisively, and with plenty of energy as the acquisitive crowd at the auction. Conductor Kerem Hasan kept those offbeat ostinato accompaniments jogging along nicely, and kept a good balance between pit and stage even in the very busy choral moments. When Baba the Turk entered her new marital home to a stately dance measure, his spacious tempo caught the sense of ironic courtly hauteur.

Hasan’s mentor was former Glyndebourne Music Director Bernard Haitink, whose death had just been announced, and who had conducted this production’s premiere as well as its first four revivals. In an announcement before curtain up, Glyndebourne dedicated this performance to Haitink. A memorable performance made a worthy memorial.

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