I went to see Stravinksy’s opera of ‘The Rake’s Progress’ performed by the British Youth Opera because I happened to catch the poster on my way back from (my umpteenth) viewing of the‘The Rake’s Progress’ paintings in at Sir John Soane’s house.
In the lead up to seeing this opera, I was going through the paintings in my mind and imagining what I might see. There’s a painting when young Tom Rakewell is surrounded by the professionals aimed to make him a gentlemen. I imagined each one having a different theme - the fencing master with a martial theme, the dancing master with a prissy song, the jockey with a galloping tune - and all these songs mixing together into a pleasingly raucous mess. I also imagined the boozy laziness of the Rose tavern and the woozy madness of Bedlam. The opera didn’t really deliver on this.
The opera does broadly follow the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell and his faithful lover, called Anne in this version. It was arranged in nine distinct scenes as Hogarth’s sequence is arranged in nine paintings. There was a Rose Tavern equivalent and a moving ending set in Bedlam but the opera adds a manservant who leads Tom into trouble and is actually the devil. Instead of marrying an elderly lady for money, Tom marries a bearded-lady for money and novelty. He also loses all his money by investing in a machine that turns stones into bread. I should have been disappointed, and in a sense I was but as I thought about the opera, I began to realise what it really was… a ‘Rake’s Progress’ and ‘Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus’ mashup.
The scenes with Baba, the bearded lady, reminded me of Martinus marriage to the conjoined twins (though Scriblerus had a hilarious love quadrangle). The stones-to-bread machine could have appeared in ‘Martinus Scriblerus’, the third book of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ or any other Scribleran project. Once I reconciled myself to that, I was a lot more comfortable with the adaptation.
My confusion with the adaptation aside, the three-and-a-half hours went by extremely quickly. I had heard Stravinsky was a difficult and often atonal composer but there was thrilling bombast, lilting melody and hummable tunes. I really enjoyed it. I know nothing of the technical skill, but the man ahead of me frequently nodded in encouragement (though occasionally shook his head in disagreement). I particularly liked the person plating the devilish manservant, Nick Shadow, his evil had a joy in it which I engaged with whenever he came on stage.
I’m still encouraged to tentatively tap my toes into opera and enjoyed this experience a great deal - though I still feel a straightforward rendering of Hogarth’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ into opera would be a treat.