Stravinsky – The Rake’s Progress

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 6 2007

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Robert Lepage, with Ex Machina, Quebec. Anne Trulove: Laura Claycomb. Tom Rakewell: Andrew Kennedy. Nick Shadow: William Shimell. Mother Goose: Julianne Young. Baba the Turk: Dagmar Peckova. Trulove: Darren Jeffery. Sellem: Donal Byrne. Keeper of the Madhouse: Shadi Torbey. Orchestr and chorus of La Monnaie.

Unusually, the Financial Times published a reader’s rebuttal of its reviewer’s complaints that the singers in Brussels’ new production of The Rake’s Progress were often faint and that the production might have been more original and better-handled. Well, I was there yesterday, and I can see the critic’s point.


For a start, to keep things perfectly objective, my neighbour, not herself an FT reader, spontaneously opined at the interval that Andrew Kennedy “might really be not bad at all, but I can’t hear him.” She also spontaneously compared this production to Robert Carsen’s Paris Candide – which also took early TV as one of its themes and which she greatly enjoyed – and concluded: “Je me suis emmerdée” (I was bored stiff).

Andrew Kennedy’s Tom was in fact beautifully sung. Quite often his voice recalled Philip Langridge, in both timbre and phrasing. But he was far from having Langridge’s volume and diction. The same (though not re sounding like Langridge of course) may be said of Laura Claycomb: her Anne was beautifully sung, beautifully phrased, but at its best only when she was at the stage apron, singing over a relatively subdued orchestra. The FT critic may be right to blame the lack of stand-up sets for this: Claycomb was perfectly audible as Tytania in the same house in 2004.


The annoying need constantly to refer to the French supertitles to understand the texts was even more pronounced with Dagmar Peckova’s Baba the Turk. Her wobbly, booming voice produced only what the French call a “bouillie” – an incomprehensible stew. It was left to William Shimmel to sing understandable English with force – though “brute force” might be an apter description of his rough-and-ready tuning and eventual signs of fatigue.

Orchestra and chorus were unusually rough and ragged too (not to mention some truly lumbering bass playing) in this work that really needs a razor-sharp performance.

The production seemed to stumble through a series of occasionally amusing clichés drawing heavily on references to films (1): rolling prairies, rolling clouds and an oil derrick at the start; the filming (by Nick Shadow) of a rowdy saloon scene; Tom and Mother Goose disappearing through her heart-shaped, red-satin-draped bed; Tom’s inflatable caravan emerging from the floor (why?); Baba the Turk drowned in the swimming pool; etc. Having decided to set the work at the time of its composition, the production team then seems to have hesitated between the themes of early TV (television being Tom's miracle-working "bread machine"), Hollywood films and Las Vegas sleaze; or, if their intention was to mix all three together, to have failed in getting them to gel into a coherent whole (coherency being one of Robert Carsen’s strong points. But maybe it was just their bad luck that Carsen’s 50s TV version of Candide should be produced only six months before their own, less convincing effort).


In the end I decided that they had probably never quite made their minds up, and that what we were seeing was still more work-in-progress than a finished piece. Despite this being the end of the run, and though quite visibly they had been directed throughout (nothing left to chance), soloists and chorus still seemed to lack real conviction in their gestures and movements. Yet the last 40 minutes, with a highly effective graveyard scene set among abandoned Las Vegas neon signs and an equally convincing asylum, showed that this production had more potential than had here been realised. Maybe, as it travels, it will come together. If so, with the same cast helped by microphones, it might make a fun DVD (2).

(1) The programme includes a list of the main film references:
  • Giant for James Dean covered in oil and the manor house in the desert
  • Destry Rides Again and Red Garters for the saloon scene
  • The Stunt Man for the director shooting from a crane
  • Sunset Boulevard for the swimming pool with a dead body floating in it
  • Mars Attacks! for the Las Vegas neon-sign graveyard
  • Snake Pit and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest for the asylum scene.
(2) After writing this review, I read in La Libre Belgique that the production has already been filmed in HDTV for DVD by OpusArte.

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