If it is “too good to be true it probably is”: a universal warning preached often today in our modern world of phishing and scams, just a slip of a click of a mouse away. More than we would care to admit are taken in, so a modern audience can perhaps sympathise with Stravinsky’s unfortunate hero Tom, lured off the straight and narrow to an unhappy end.

Gidon Saks © Johan Persson
Gidon Saks
© Johan Persson

A concert performance of an opera is a strange compromise for opera fans, as the disappointment of foregoing a fully staged production run with all its costs is balanced with the opportunity of assembling a top rate line of soloists for one night only in the concert hall. Happily, the hand-picked cast, with a few props and an odd costume or two, worked hard to bring this high-spirited work to life, supported by the home team of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the brand new and exciting Royal Conservatoire Voices, all conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

Written in 1951, to a dense, witty libretto from A.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the plot follows the famous series of paintings by William Hogarth depicting the spendthrift Tom Rakewell’s decline in the seedier side of London in the 1700s. Tom is beguiled by Nick Shadow who persuades him to leave his beloved, Anne Trulove, for more exciting times in the Big Smoke and we follow his eventful journey from brothel to Bedlam. The opera is stuffed full of fun, but has its very dark side, no more so than when Tom tries to buy back his soul with a game of “guess the card” with Shadow. The two voices battle it out with just a harpsichord, but even as Tom answers correctly, Shadow has the last word and strikes Rakewell mad.

Andrew Staples, with his light, clear tenor was an endearing everyman Tom Rakewell, completely taken in by Nick Shadow’s promises, and torn away from his beloved Anne. His “Here I stand” springtime aria was delivered full of impetuous innocence and optimism, yet the passing of a year and a day sees him dishevelled, his waistcoat now worn back to front as a straightjacket, slumped in front of the conductor’s podium, imagining he is Adonis. The more we can take Rakewell to our hearts as one of us, the more powerful this opera.

American soprano Emily Birsan as Anne, dressed in a black tulle skirt with a black and cream brocade bodice, radiated warmth with her lovely lyrical voice, particularly so in her prayerful “I go to him”. Her final parting from the babbling Tom was desperately poignant as her father, a strong voiced supportive Peter Rose, led her slowly away.

Gidon Saks with his overpowering deep rich voice simply relished his performance as Nick Shadow, with a whole paint box of leery smiles, louche attitudes, so sinister as he held sway, dominating the platform in his dark grey leather trousers. The game of cards to decide Tom’s fate at the end was mesmerising as he ducked this way and that, tantalisingly waving the cards in Tom’s face, but never quite letting him see what was hidden.

While Tom is taken on a year-long decline, we had enormous fun on the way, with lots of strongly sung colourful characters. Catherine Wyn-Rogers, as the knowing brothel-keeper Mother Goose, claims Tom as her very own initiate and drags him away. He re-emerges in puzzled dishevelment, spitting out bright pink feathers from Wyn-Rogers’ boa. Susan Bickley, dressed in mauve baggy pantaloons and purple kaftan, was a riot as Baba the Turk, and Alan Oke as Sellem, the auctioneer spiv in white jacket and shades, stole the stage as he sold off Baba’s possessions, including Baba herself. A Greggs paper bag was the machine that produced bread from stones.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Davis was in its element with this repertoire. Although at times the sound verged on the muddy, with a less than certain opening fanfare, things picked up as the evening went on with the players delivering increasingly more bite that this spiky neoclassical music needs. Behind the orchestra, the newly formed Royal Conservatoire Voices, under chorus master Timothy Dean, produced a vibrant and focused youthful sound, every word crystal clear. The boisterous auction scene with its quick-fire bidding and ear-splitting “hurrahs” was a highlight.

The singers lined up across the platform, facing us to deliver the punchy moral epilogue: that the devil makes work for idle hands. It was clearly spring again... Nick Shadow’s favourite season for fresh opportunities.