A blank sheet of paper can intimidate or inspire. The fresh page can stifle a writer, trapped in the glare of expectation, or can encourage daring originality, be it words in a notebook or notes on a stave. Simon McBurney's production of The Rake's Progress for Festival d'Aix-en-Provence begins with the equivalent of a blank page – a simple white paper box onto which he pours his inspiration, ideas tumbling onto – and through – the stage of the open-air Théâtre de l'Archevêché to create something that both dazzled and touched the heart.

Julia Bullock (Anne), Paul Appleby (Tom), David Pittsinger (Trulove) and Kyle Ketelsen (Nick Shadow) © Pascal Victor | Artcompress
Julia Bullock (Anne), Paul Appleby (Tom), David Pittsinger (Trulove) and Kyle Ketelsen (Nick Shadow)
© Pascal Victor | Artcompress

Stravinsky's opera, inspired by William Hogarth's series of paintings and engravings, charts Tom Rakewell's decline and fall at the hands of the devilish Nick Shadow. Rakewell deserts Anne Trulove for the wild pleasures of London, marries eccentrically, is financially ruined and ends up in Bedlam mental asylum. To W.H.Auden's libretto, it's a quirky opera, episodic and requiring a deft touch to make it cohere. McBurney provides just that. As Anne (Julia Bullock) joins Tom (Paul Appleby) on stage, etchings of a countryside scene are projected onto the interior of the white box. From the moment she brushes the walls with her hand, and colour gradually infuses the walls, floor and ceiling, it was clear something magical lay ahead. 

Will Duke's video propels Tom on his journey to London, rising above the capital's skyline to a towering pleasure palace. Mobile phone footage looms over Tom's bed, voyeuristically capturing his romantic conquests. Expectations of Andrew Watts' exotic Baba the Turk are raised via an absolutely fabulous sequence of photos, outlandish poses in Christina Cunningham's outlandish costumes, that had the audience giggling. When Baba rocks up in a white limousine, complete with fluffy white Pomeranian dog, the giggles turned to guffaws.

Paul Appleby (Tom), Hilary Summers (Mother Goose) and Chorus © Pascal Victor | Artcompress
Paul Appleby (Tom), Hilary Summers (Mother Goose) and Chorus
© Pascal Victor | Artcompress

The white box isn't just McBurney's canvas though. Kyle Ketelsen's slippery, bespectacled devil is first seen – appropriately – in shadow, before bursting through the paper to make his entrance. Soon the set is punctured by all manner of people and objects, most brilliantly in Tom and Baba's Baroque bedroom as a statue of Venus de Milo plunges in, along with a Venetian gondola, Tutankhamun's sarcophagus, double bass and stuffed giraffe. Hands rip through the floor to offer Tom his suicide options – revolver, rope, poison or knife – as Nick calls in his debts. McBurney never overplays his hand, though, content at times to allow the music to tell its own tale, most touchingly when Anne cradles Tom in the asylum.

<i>The Rake's Progress</i> in Aix © Pascal Victor | Artcompress
The Rake's Progress in Aix
© Pascal Victor | Artcompress

Aix fields a strong cast, headed by Paul Appleby's headstrong Tom, his lyric tenor clean and focused, if without an heroic ring. Julia Bullock's soft-grained soprano made for a sincere Anne, rising brilliantly to the challenges of “No word from Tom”, scaling top notes with ease. Kyle Ketelsen doesn't have the most imposing voice for Nick Shadow, but his oily bass-baritone was suitably insinuating. The decision to have a countertenor tackle Baba the Turk worked in terms of comic grotesque, Andrew Watts varying between hooty chest register and powerful soprano to great effect. With Hilary Summers (Mother Goose) and David Pittsinger (Trulove) providing solid support, there were no weak links.

Julia Bullock (Anne) and Paul Appleby (Tom) © Pascal Victor | Artcompress
Julia Bullock (Anne) and Paul Appleby (Tom)
© Pascal Victor | Artcompress

The Orchestre de Paris tucked into Stravinsky's neoclassical pastiche of a score with verve, driven along precisely by conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen, a late replacement for an indisposed Daniel Harding. Act 2's coppery trumpet solo was played from the stage as a Kensington busker.

“Idle hands are the devil's workshop” (Proverbs 16:27) provides Stravinsky with his epilogue, delivered from the walkway in front of the Archevêché's pit. Resounding into the clear Aix night, it was clear McBurney had drawn more than just a moral from his blank page.