Barbara Hannigan is a force of nature. The Canadian soprano specialises in contemporary repertoire, creating roles in such operas as Written on Skin, Hamlet, Bérénice and Lessons in Love and Violence. She also conducts – sometimes singing simultaneously – directing orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony and The Cleveland Orchestra. Now she threads another string to her multifaceted bow – mentor. Two years ago she created Equilibrium Young Artists, a mentoring scheme whose participants form the cast in this semi-staged touring presentation of The Rake’s Progress, the mainland European leg of which closed at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie last night.

Barbara Hannigan, Gyula Rab and Ensemble Ludwig © Daniel Dittus
Barbara Hannigan, Gyula Rab and Ensemble Ludwig
© Daniel Dittus

Inspired by William Hogarth's series of engravings and set to WH Auden’s libretto, Stravinsky's opera depicts the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, a good but poor young man, manipulated by Nick Shadow, an incarnation of the devil. In pursuit of money, Tom deserts his sweetheart, Anne Trulove, for the heady delights of London, where he marries the bearded Baba the Turk, plunges into financial ruin and winds up in Bedlam mental asylum.

Directed by Linus Fellbom, the concert staging is simple enough, which is fine for Rake’s straightforward, moralistic plot. Cappella Amsterdam were split either side of Ludwig, a cracking Dutch music collective formed in 2012, while the cast largely occupied the area in front of the orchestra. Anna Ardelius’ costumes were effective – several of the men in billowing black pantaloons, Mother Goose trussed up in a black leather bodice, Nick Shadow in velvet jacket – without being over elaborate. When Tom prepares to seek his fortune, Shadow acts as valet to change his costume at the side of the stage.

Douglas Williams (Nick Shadow) and Gyula Rab (Tom Rakewell) © Daniel Dittus
Douglas Williams (Nick Shadow) and Gyula Rab (Tom Rakewell)
© Daniel Dittus

Stravinsky’s opera would seem to be a good fit for young voices and Hannigan had plenty from which to choose. She received 350 applications from singers to join the programme and auditioned 125. Eventually 20 singers were selected, which form three casts for Rake (with a few overlaps). But how would these young voices cope with performing opera “in the round”, encompassed by the Hamburg audience? There are undoubtedly some fine voices among the performers, but diction and projection suffered. I wonder how much of the text transmitted to those sitting behind the singers.

Gyula Rab made a beaming, likeable Tom Rakewell, his tenor light and flexible, although dry at the top and under-powered in his arioso “Love, too frequently betrayed”. Douglas Williams’ charcoal bass-baritone made for a suave Nick Shadow, playing the naive Tom like a violin. Sadly, his “I burn, I freeze” suffered from anemic high notes which lacked weight. Swedish soprano Sofie Asplund made for a fine Anne Trulove with a ringing top, although her diction was muddied when battling with the orchestra (a hazard of concert performances). She also demonstrated the Elbphilharmonie’s pin-drop acoustics when her “off-stage” call to Tom that “A love that is sworn before thee can plunder Hell of its prey” rang as clearly from the balcony as anything on stage all evening.

Sofie Asplund (Anne Trulove) © Daniel Dittus
Sofie Asplund (Anne Trulove)
© Daniel Dittus

James Way’s tenor made a punchy impression as Sellem, Marta Świderska amused as a treacly Baba the Turk – although the text was often unintelligible – and Erik Rosenius was an authoritative Trulove doubling (bizarrely) as a falsetto Mother Goose. Cappella Amsterdam made strong contributions, entering into the spirit even if the director kept them on a short leash, tied to their music stands.

Rake needs plenty of neoclassical punch and crispness and Hannigan and Ludwig delivered. Given Stravinsky’s small ensemble, there was still plenty of weight to the sound, Cyrus Allyar’s pearly trumpet in the second scene of Act 2 an example of the excellent solo playing. If the performance didn’t entirely cohere, that could be down to the venue and the difficulties it posed for these young singers.

***11