Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress

Staatsoper Unter den Linden im Schiller Theater, Berlin, Thursday March 14 2013

Conductor: David Robert Coleman. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes: Małgorzata Szczęśniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Trulove: Jan Martiník. Anne: Adriana Kucerová. Tom Rakewell: Stephan Rügamer. Nick Shadow: Gidon Saks. Mother Goose: Birgit Remmert. Baba the Turk: Nicolas Ziélinski. Sellem: Erin Caves. Keeper of the madhouse: Gyula Orendt. Staatskapelle Berlin. Staatsopernchor.

This production of The Rake’s Progress was covered so well and in such depth by Opera Cake in 2010 that it hardly seems necessary for me to add anything, other than that I had a partly different cast. It can't have been easy for Opera Cake: once again, Krzysztof Warlikowski's production was typically... What's the word? A web? A tapestry? Kaleidoscopic? Whatever the word is for involving a profusion of ideas and details, themes, images, symbols, actions, ambiguities, suggestions... Like other Warlikowski productions (or, for example, the Châtelet Paladins, similarly "busy") you'd need to see it more than once, and preferably also have a trace on video, fully (if ever) to grasp the whole.

The initial concept is simple enough: floppy-haired, wide-eyed young Tom is an American country boy engaged to Anne, taken off to New York, dressed anew in a leopard-skin jacket and shiny boots and introduced to the weird and wonderful world of Warhol and gender and sexual variety. As usual with Warlikowski, it works. His approach gets us thinking and thus gets us involved, and the multiple facets - the profusion I just mentioned - build up more than just a narrative; more a kind of mind map that has you chewing the work over and fascinated for days after by spinning or weaving together:
- Action in more than one place: the main narrative plus other things going on to the sides, at the back, upstairs (where the chorus occupy the balcony of a 60s cinema with loud wallpaper) and downstairs (where a series of mirrored doors open to reveal, e.g. the Truloves' kitchen under the scaffolding).
- The theme of media exposure and Warhol's famous fame, and so...
- ... Live action but also on TV and cinema screens, some broadcast directly (there was a cameraman on stage) some filmed: as Warhol ate his burger on TV, Nick Shadow, with a Warhol wig quite visibly plonked on top of his darker hair and ambiguous make-up, sat at a diner table eating his, to be joined by Tom, Anne and her father to enjoy their fast food, ketchup and cigarettes; the chorus upstairs was clearly meant to be watching a film on the large screen lowered or raised as needed, but also (perhaps like an audience at The Rocky Horror Picture Show) sometimes joined in: at the wedding (blowing bubbles), the auction, or in Bedlam (acting insane and throwing paper aeroplanes down into the pit)
- References and allusions, actual (i.e. meant by Warlikowksi) or imagined (by us) to cinema: Midnight Cowboy, The Rocky Horror Show, West Side Story, John Waters and no doubt other films I've never seen; but even, I thought, The Producers and La Cage Aux Folles, though I doubt it's a favourite of Warlikowski's...
- References and allusions, actual (i.e. meant by Warlikowksi) or imagined (by us) to people: Warhol himself and his entourage; but it seemed to me the (wonderful) character of Nick Shadow here brought together Warhol, The Joker, Tim Curry, Liza Minelli, Ediie Izzard (I wonder if Warlikowski knows Eddie Izzard?)...
- American icons: Warhol himself and his entourage, Mother Goose's balloon-filled aluminium Airstream caravan, cowboys and their hats, burgers, Heinz 57 varieties... but also, in the magnificent auction scene, Darth Vader, an astronaut, pin-up diner waitresses, Minnie Mouse, Bugs Bunny/the Duracell rabbit, or at any rate a muscular young man in trunks and army boots with a giant bunny’s head, armed with a rifle... all paraded out on the sides of the orchestra pit while the dreadlocked Sellem directed affairs and tangled with Baba between the pit and the front-row patrons. This was really exciting, as things rarely are in the opera house. It was followed by a masterly graveyard scene that was really creepy (Nick), really moving (Tom), and once really dramatic (Tom shooting Nick – several times).
- Gender and sexual ambiguity: it wasn't always clear who was what among the mini-dressed young athletes in jewels and extravagantly coiffed and made-up young women; Tom was drugged and dragged off for a night among the balloons with both Mother Goose and Nick and eventually, after a fair amount of kissing and fondling from the latter, married to Baba the Turk, a bearded countertenor in a black lace body stocking, patent high heels and a Venetian blond wig.
The lighting was, as usual, superb throughout, turning the brick walls to gold or reflecting, like rippling water, off the glossy floor. But, though there's a huge amount more detail I could add, that's enough description...

On Thursday night I had an excellent cast, dominated, as Opera Cake pointed out two years ago, by the amazingly charismatic Gidon Saks, whose apotheosis as a wonderfully sardonic and, as I said, creepy Nick came in that graveyard scene: strutting around, showering the stage with playing cards and generally chewing up the scenery, as they say, in a black sequinned suit, black satin corset and patent boots. His voice was powerful and his diction was perfect: I understood every word.

Diction sadly wasn't the strong point of the rest of the singers, apart from the excellent Erin Caves as Sellem, but they were perfect in every other way. Stephan Rügamer, to put it briefly, sounded like a new Robert Tear: a highly nuanced, "British tenor" sound but with unusual punch and rondeur. The same could be said of Adriana Kucerová - not that she might be a new Robert Tear, but that her voice was rounder and stronger than we typically hear in this part. I'd have been happy if Nicolas Ziélinski's voice had also been a little rounder - it was strong enough. But he certainly played the petulant queen well; from a counter-tenor, why doesn't that surprise me? The chorus was fine enough when we could hear them properly - having them high up at the back meant that was seldom. The orchestra, to me, could have been a bit more razor sharp, as would befit a Prussian band; but no complaining.

With such a strong cast in such a classic Warlikowski show (and in the comfort and good acoustics of the Schiller Theater, at bargain prices), how come there were so few people in the house? I've never before seen such a sparsely-attended performance. A shame. I loved it.


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