Trevor Pinnock isn’t the first Early Music specialist to take on Stravinsky’s acidic morality tale The Rake’s Progress, with its chiseled libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman after William Hogarth’s famous paintings. Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir tackled it in a definitive recording starring Bryn Terfel, Anne Sophie von Otter and Ian Bostridge. Pinnock brings his expertise to the young musicians at London’s Royal Academy of Music for a new production directed by Frederic Wake-Walker.

The Rake's Progress
© Craig Fuller

Wake-Walker’s setting pivots between 18th-century and contemporary London in a spare production that is heavy on projections, devised by Ergo Phizmiz and Lottie Bowater. Colours are saturated and woozy; images – whether of city or country life – glitch disconcertingly; there are sudden shifts of setting, such as when Nick Shadow transforms Tom’s bedsit tower-block living room into a taxi cab, as they go haring off to see Baba the Turk. 

This is the unreal city of TS Eliot, where things are in free fall; there is a feeling of flatness, which does well to summon the crunchy superficiality of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism. Equally it hollows out the moments of emotional payoff that even sternly formalist Stravinsky must have wanted (Tom’s ennui at the top of Act 2; Anne’s pathetic lullaby in the penultimate scene). 

Jacob Phillips (Nick Shadow) and Georgia Mae Ellis (Mother Goose)
© Craig Fuller

Props are spare – the feeling of emptiness is overwhelming – but works to the detriment of character definition, who have nothing to anchor them. The most effective scenes are the aforementioned sofa cab drive, and the cardboard boxes in which Baba arrives and the chorus burst from in the auction scene, as well as the long table that makes up the asylum where the inmates pop bubble wrap. 

Costumes by Anna Jones are outstanding. Baba the Turk wears a full-body merkin that summons Lady Gaga, with a bald head and hood that suggests Grace Jones; she rattles her energetically inane patter into TikTok, in a truly inspired use of social media in opera. Nick Shadow wears a devilishly-checked red and black suit that suggests a caddish 1920s banker; the chorus at the auction wear bubble wrap; a reminder that under capitalism people are really only things: subtle as a brick, but not everything has to be subtle to be good. 

Jacob Phillips (Nick Shadow) and Ryan Vaughan Davies (Tom Rakewell)
© Craig Fuller

Principal voices bristled with potential and glowed with assurance. Ryan Vaughan Davies was a commanding and flexible Tom Rakewell, with the glow of bronze already emerging in his voice; variety of dynamic and colour already impresses, and there is a roundness of tone that gave the guileless, immature protagonist plenty of pathos; not a bad man, nor a good one. Jacob Phillips’ Nick Shadow was made of portentous stuff: a cavernous baritone that filled the auditorium and reminded us that it’s his game everyone else is playing; his voice pinged with a charismatic certainty that swept all before it. 

Cassandra Wright (Anne Trulove)
© Craig Fuller

Cassandra Wright’s Anne Trulove also gleamed, if more brightly, a tower of vocal and moral strength in her showstopper Act 1 finale. Rebecca Hart’s Baba scaled the technical heights with impressive assurance, and her voice, with its umber pigment, spoke of the character’s weariness and experience. The RAM choristers filled the spare staging with bags of characters and box-fresh text. 

An orchestra of RAM students took a bullish approach to the score, especially from woodwind and brass. Bassoons proved especially pungent; Mia Plummer delivered her trumpet solo onstage with classy lyrical circumspection as a busker when Ann arrived in town. Ensemble, particularly from the strings, could have been tougher and tighter, and changes of mood more mercurial, but the competence of the playing suggests that these musicians’ elbows will get sharper as the run of performances continues.