Friday, 22 January 2010

The Rake at Covent Garden: Too Spectacular for its own good?

Just a few despatches from the opening night of The Rake’s Progress revival at Covent Garden. Most readers will already have seen the spectacular production stills from the previous staging (the concept is Hogarth’s London transferred to 1930s Hollywood), though I have to say it is even more breathtaking in the flesh. The revival has a new cast, and all put in excellent performances. Top honours go to Kyle Ketelsen as Nick Shadow, followed at a hair’s breadth by Toby Spence in the title role. Spectacle is the key to this production, and the staging of each scene combines jaw-dropping visual innovation with a loyalty to the essence of the story. And the direction is impeccable, with every potential visual gag or sly interaction exploited to the full.

But there is one serious flaw in the whole conception, and it’s the music. I don’t want to come over all Adorno about Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, but the music in The Rake’s Progress really is at the workaday end of his Mozartian spectrum. Certainly, it is skilfully crafted, and his arias and recitatives do everything the story needs. But that’s all they do, and the work is functional to a fault. In more modest stagings, the composer’s lack of ambition is less glaring, but in a spectacular production like this, you begin to wonder why so much effort was put into making something so visually powerful out of such a slender musical offering. Bizarrely, the scene changes become the focus of the audience’s attention. Cast and orchestra do everything they can for Stravinsky, but the uncharacteristic modesty of his score puts his music in an unusually subsidiary position to the spectacle.

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