“At all times, for idle hands and hearts and minds, the devil finds work to do” sings the cast in the epilogue of The Rake’s Progress. “At all times”, indeed; it is very much in the here and now that director Simon McBurney stages Stravinsky’s pastiche opera inspired by a series of 18th-century paintings by William Hogarth. His virtuoso use of multimedia in this Dutch National Opera production (premiered at Festival d'Aix last summer with the same cast) makes for a brilliant spectacle. Yet the modern stagecraft never feels gimmicky nor gets in the way of the storytelling.

Paul Appleby (Tom Rakewell) and Kyle Ketelsen (Nick Shadow)
© Monika Rittershaus

At the beginning, the stage is a large, empty, white paper box, like a blank page that says: “Once upon a time…”. An idyllic pastoral landscape is projected onto it as Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove promise each other eternal love. The diabolical Nick Shadow appears at first only as a dark silhouette behind the paper box, making the first tear through the immaculate paper wall to enter the scene. He lures Tom with the promise of fortune and whisks him off to the City in London, whose skyline, complete with the Gherkin, is now the projected backdrop. In the capital, Nick Shadow turns out to be a master in debauchery and Tom starts his life as a rake: his fortune grows and he takes on a string of lovers of both sexes that parade on the stage entering and exiting through yet more perforations in the paper.

Kyle Ketelsen (Nick Shadow) and Paul Appleby (Tom Rakewell)
© Monika Rittershaus

A present-day libertine, Tom streams his orgies from his mobile phone. Shadow convinces him to marry Baba the Turk, a celebrity bearded woman whose main attraction seems to be her fame and hordes of Instagram followers. Domestic bliss in Baba’s ostentatiously Baroque mansion is short-lived. Soon, the stock market crashes, Tom is ruined and all his possessions are auctioned. Nick Shadow reveals his demonic nature to Tom but failing to win his soul, he steals his sanity. In the final act, as Anne Trulove comes to visit Tom in the psychiatric hospital Bedlam, what is left of the white paper box is mere tatters, smeared with dirt, large holes gaping in its sides, mirroring Tom Rakewell’s destroyed mind.

Musically, there is much to enjoy too. Conductor Ivor Bolton leads the Nederlands Kamerorkest in an unfussy reading of the neoclassical score. Winds have a quiet intensity. Ad Welleman gets to play his trumpet solo on stage, as a street musician in the London tube. Ernst Munneke’s harpsichord punctuates the recitatives ironically. The cast, down to the smallest roles, shows no weakness. Hilary Summers as Mother Goose, David Pittsinger as Trulove, Alan Oke as the auctioner and Even Hughes as the keeper of the madhouse (also doubling at Nick’s twin shadow) all provide worthy support.

Andrew Watts (Baba the Turk) and Paul Appleby (Tom Rakewell)
© Monika Rittershaus

I’ll admit I am partial to a mezzo-soprano singing Baba The Turk. However, the casting of countertenor Andrew Watts as the campiest of reality-TV celebrities works extremely well in this production. What is lost in smoothness of tone is compensated with stage performance. With a timbre lighter than usual and clad in his slim-cut City trader suit, bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen’s sleek Nick Shadow is portrayed as more sly than really menacing until he unmasks himself in a formidably sang “I burn, I freeze!”. With his handsome timbre and innate way with the text, Paul Appleby is an endearing Tom. This character is one that is usually annoyingly weak-willed, but Mr Appleby manages to make of him a loveable character with whom one sympathizes. One is gripped by his downfall. Even more touching perhaps is Julia Bullock’s portrayal of Anne. Making her DNO debut, Ms Bullock impressed with her unaffected acting and her gleaming soprano, that darted effortlessly into luminous top notes in her aria “No word from Tom”.