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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

The Rake’s Progress, English Touring Opera, York Theatre Royal, Saturday

I am going to preface this review of ETO's production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress with some thoughts on reviews, their role and who are the critics writing for. A (concert) review is not just a response to a live event, it is a subjective response. But reviews I have read seem to think they are blessed with both objectivity and authority. When we think of a classical music critic - Tom Service, rock music critic - Alexis Petridis, theatre critic - Michael Billington, art critic - Jonathan Jones and just in case one might think there is elitism -creep creeping in, food critic - Grace Dent.

They all sign off their articles with authority, often with a quaint damning faint praise.

Here's Richard Morrison in The Sunday Times review of the opera production: 'The Rake's Progress review - music saves the day in messy ETO staging.'

Remember this is Mr Morrison's take on the first night. Does this header colour the readers take on the rest of the article and does this in turn deter potential audiences from going? Is there a responsibility to 'talk up' the positives? I know what Morrison is saying and I agree. And as far as I can tell so did other reviewers. That's because it's obvious. No insight necessary. 'Music saves the day' I ask you: the singers were excellent, orchestra and conductor superb and it's bloody Stravinsky for goodness sake.

Critics need integrity, of course they do. But they can showcase the positives as well as their egos.

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is a great opera and ETO’s production was very good indeed, but it wasn’t without its problems. I thought one of the issues would be quality of sound delivered by the ETO orchestra in the Theatre pit. Not a bit of it. The short opening prelude, introduction really, was rhythmically razor sharp, every instrumental detail crystal clear both here and throughout the entire work. Of course, this is not a surprise given the quality of the players, but conductor Jack Sheen must take much of the accolades, he was superb. And young. And clearly one to be watched.


Polly Graham’s direction was highly intelligent, but busy. I know it is a fine line between breathing life into a form in which stasis is the norm. But there was just too much movement at times and for no seemingly obvious purpose. I had problems with April Dalton’s design at the start of the First Act, it was too full both physically and metaphorically. The detail overload included a maypole, Punch and Judy pantomime box and singers with masks. OK I get it. The masks reference Greek Theatre which, like Stravinsky’s neo-classical opera, represents distance, objectivity. And this also alludes to the Greek tragedies: the character flaw and what dramatically unfolds with a bit of catharsis at the end: the devil makes work for idle hands. But why the Punch & Judy reference? Well, this was a traditional seaside, working class puppet show. The devil and hangman Jack Ketch make an appearance and (deep breath) the character Mr Punch was begotten from the commedia dell'arte Neopolitan character, Pulcinella; the title of Stravinsky’s ballet.


What I did admire about Ms Graham’s direction and Ms Dalton’s design was that they took chances. It was memorable. And I suspect that many of the issues mentioned above would not have been so critical in a larger theatre space.


The opening scene between Tom Rakewell (tenor Frederick Jones) and Anne Trulove (soprano Nazan Fikret) takes place at a May Day festival. The balance between soloist and an excellent chorus was not good. It was particularly difficult to hear Nazan Fikret that clearly, especially in her lower register. Having said that, Ms Fikret sang superbly throughout. She has a lovely tone and there was real feeling and convincing dramatic conviction. However, I thought the image of her dressed in Wagnerian battle mode to rescue Tom was a bit naff; it is supposed to be salvation through love, through goodness. A lot of Ms Graham’s casting did work really well, not least the image of Tom and Shadow as alter egos. The black and white dress, even in the shadow boxing match. Jerome Knox (baritone) was an utterly convincing Shadow dripping with elegant charm and seductive malevolence. Another standout performer was mezzo- soprano Lauren Young as the bearded lady Baba. She was confident, funny and compassionate. Quite a remarkable achievement for a woman with a two-foot beard. Amy J Payne proved to be a very seductive Mother Goose; that provocative, surrealist costume was alarming to say the least.


The take on turning water into wine, here stone into bread as a means to end famine, and offer a path to redemption and recapture Anne’s heart, was very effective as were the consequences of this folly in the auction which included Baba herself. There is a cruel price to pay. After a year and a day and a game of cards, Tom is left half alive and half dead: Shadow’s curse is insanity.    


Frederick Jones, utterly brilliant throughout, sang the final Bedlam scene with such heartbreaking tenderness. Not a dry eye in the house, I expect. Then, like Mozart’s Figaro, the soloists and chorus re-enter the stage to reassure us us it’s only make believe, to be mindful of idle hands and have a safe journey home. Oh yes, and that ‘good or bad, all men are mad’.

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