What better venue for a brand new production of The Rake's Progress than Wilton’s Music Hall? The 19th-century stage and building have been restored enough to ensure the roof doesn’t cave in, but not so much to lose a patina of studied dereliction. The perfect setting, then, for Stravinsky’s backwards morality tale, an opera both archly-stylised and grittily down-to-earth.

The auction scene © Catherine Ashmore
The auction scene
© Catherine Ashmore

The story is one in which priapic, exuberant innocence cedes to urban experience: the alienated spectacles of bearded lady and brothel, the capriciousness of the financial world, and the vacuity of libertinage. Tom is promised to Ann Trulove, though he is poor, without employment, and in want of wealth; the mysterious envoy Nick Shadow appears with good news that Tom is suddenly a rich man and must come to London. Tom enjoys the sexual and social delights of the city, before financially ruining himself and ending up in Bedlam, even if he manages to save his soul from the infernal Shadow, whose bargain – surprise surprise – was a Faustian one all along. The devil indeed makes work for idle hands, the epilogue gently chides the audience.

The design and staging were simple and graphic: ladders (of aspiration and degradation, summoning us both to heaven and to hell) were vertical punctuation; the items at the auction were represented by outsized playing cards, presaging the graveyard scene, and suggestive of this Alice in Wonderland world of excess and absurdity, in moral freefall. Costumes were 18th-century, including for the Southbank Sinfonia, who were dotted around the rear portion of the stage. They navigated Stravinsky’s fiendish score with perspicacity, despite a few tuning wobbles from the strings. The lack of a covered pit meant problems early on balancing orchestra and voice, which later settled.

Jonathan Lemalu (Nick Shadow) and Robert Murray (Tom Rakewell) © Catherine Ashmore
Jonathan Lemalu (Nick Shadow) and Robert Murray (Tom Rakewell)
© Catherine Ashmore

In aptly music-hall fashion, Selina Cadell's production delighted in the loosened barrier between audience and performers, with cast and chorus often addressing us directly, and wandering about the auditorium in transitions between scenes. In properly Brechtian fashion, the house lights didn’t go down all the way, and we all felt suitably implicated, sat within cork-popping distance from the square mile.

For Stravinsky and his librettists, WH Auden and Chester Kallmann, 18th-century London is a synecdoche for our ambivalent experience of urban modernity, where the freedom it affords us – in seeking wealth or sexual adventure – is accompanied by moral migraine and ethical nausea. Robert Murray’s Tom massaged his temples and screwed up his eyes at key moments of personal dilemma, when the pressures of his double nature seemed particularly acute.

Susanna Hurrell (Ann Trulove) and Victoria Simmonds (Baba the Turk) © Catherine Ashmore
Susanna Hurrell (Ann Trulove) and Victoria Simmonds (Baba the Turk)
© Catherine Ashmore

Murray displayed a round, soft upper register when it mattered, but also robust youthfulness in the big moments, never less than secure. His lower register also has plenty of rich, baritonal colours, deployed to great effect. Victoria Simmonds, as Baba the Turk, delivered supple and secure patter, even if the text sometimes lost definition, but one could listen to her superb, explosive upper register all evening. Susanna Hurrell as Ann Trulove was sweet-toned throughout and imbued her voice with heartbreaking fragility in the penultimate scene. An otherwise wonderful “No Word from Tom” saw a few slightly wayward and forced top notes.

Jonathan Lemalu's Nick Shadow ran the risk of stealing not only Tom’s soul but the whole show. He sang with gravelly charm and superb diction that trod a careful line between menace and obsequiousness, holding out his most terrifying delivery for the graveyard scene. Here, Shadow was not only choreographing the stages of Tom’s progress but the show itself: he emerged from the bowels of the stage, through a trapdoor, and throughout the opera chivvied conductor Laurence Cummings into doing his bidding. Cummings himself was dressed up as Handel, garbed in red frock coat and cap in the second half, gesturing to Phillip Mercier’s famous picture of the composer. This insinuation that the musicians on stage were of the devil’s party indexed Tom’s increasing isolation, borne forward by musical and social forces he can’t understand.

Victoria Simmonds (Baba the Turk) © Catherine Ashmore
Victoria Simmonds (Baba the Turk)
© Catherine Ashmore

Unlike big-budget opera, this show could not rely on the usual battery of theatrical and technical tricks in casting dramatic or intellectual light and shade. This hardly mattered: lively movement direction, with nary a static moment, and consistently excellent diction gave us unfettered drama. Though it is strange to say such a thing when talking of Stravinsky’s piquantly poised and ironically stylised musical textures, the experience felt utterly authentic.

The most expensive tickets for this show are £25, and start at a tenner. OperaGlass Works want to stage chamber opera in intimate settings with accessible prices. Going by this impressively assured first production, they have a bright future: this Rake was a textbook statement of how visceral opera can be, and how much fun it should be.

****1