Before touching down in Milan for last night's la prima, Robert Lepage's production of The Rake's Progress touts an almost rock 'n' roll world tour rider stemming through Brussels, London, Lyon, and San Francisco. It's five co-production backers range from Covent Garden to Opéra National de Lyon to Teatro Real. Which is why we're surprised that with such prestige, this production was such a huge miss.
French Canadian Lepage's new(ish) direction [seen last year @ Covent Garden, Rupert Christiansen reviewed it here] is one that's bursting with clever ideas and cinematic allusions, but disjointedness blights every idea from the narrative to the blocking. The continuity has been destroyed, and the production is a whirlwind of tricks. Through the course of Stravinsky's 1951 opera -- based on William Hogarth's series of eight, 18th century paintings -- we find allusions to Cheever & Hockney & Andrew Wyeth, as well as classic American cinematic triumphs like Psycho and Sunset Blvd, but there's too much gimmick and too little profundity. The individual direction fell flat and static, while characters were woodenly blocked and thoughtlessly anchored -- it's cool that Lepage has a nice library and a tasty collection of old DVDs, but still.
Lepage fast-forwards the libretto about 200 years, and the opera begins in homage to the idealized, American-West landscapes from the post-war era of the late 40s and 50s. Lepage employed broad swaths of video projections splashed across a flat-screen backdrop, showing us star-filled evenings (replete with shooting stars) to golden sunsets over the ocean (complete with undulating clouds). But these projections, at best, looked like expensive, snazzy computer screen-savers, especially when props crossed the projection, breaking the illusion. The reality of the video landscapes jarred with the idealized props (like the helium balloon Silver Streak trailer, and the cartoonish Texas saloon). It was all too pastiche to be harmonious. Lepage's tribute to the American landscape was earnest, but misguided. There was no clever commentary on the era that he so ardently tried to emulate; just a hollow and gimmick-filled production. The worst offense is that the singers were painted in such a homogeneous & monochromatic spectrum, that it was difficult to find any resonance. And while his characters were flat, and the lighting was even darker, Lepage had to balance the lack of spark with garishly-colored costumes in purples and magentas, and pulsating neon signs for Vegas's transposed graveyard.
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Tom Rakewell, sung by Andrew Kennedy, was the most charismatic of the lot, dressed in a denim tuxedo, cowboy hat & boots for the opening pastoral scene, continuing with a fringe-embroidered white tuxedo at the apex of his wealth and marriage. He was painted as a simple country boy seduced by his soon-to-be agent, Nick Shadow, who lead him astray into the beds of whores and bearded women. Kennedy moved lightly across the stage, which matched his vocal color of a lean, deep tenor. His upper register, which he showed-off in the Bedlam scene ("With roses crowned, I sit on ground") was wholly sweet.
Emma Bell as Anne was vocally unimpressive and her acting was flat -- one dimensional. It wasn't until the final scene in Bedlam (before Stavinsky's epilogue) that she finally showed a modicum of range and emotion, caressing the freshly-crazy Tom with pity. Her confrontation with Tom in Act II, Scene II was blasé, without the weight of regret or dejection that's needed to make the scene effectively sentimental.
Nick Shadow's William Shimell was directed with equally unexciting motivation. Everyone on stage in good form, but the direction was so flat and boring that it coated the whole production in a mediocre wash. Robert Lloyd's Trulove was well sung and convincing, but detached. Brightness came via Natascha Petrinsky as Baba the Turk, who gave a confident performance. Unfortunately by Lepage, she was given a maternal, sympathetic direction, which made her perplexedly docile. Julianne Young's Mother Goose was the total package in corset & heels (and an awesome Lady Gaga-esque wig), but was fighting to shape her character, and managed to add a little spark to the static pall.
The orchestra under the direction of David Robertson had a nice range of dynamics, but he led the stripped-down ensemble with a polite, almost apologetic sound. He let the singers and orchestra breathe at their own pace and there was nicely no muscling or pushing at all -- we'd have appreciated more fire, Robertson has the talent and the experience to avoid coming across as bashful of being on the podium. Thankfully, the intermezzo at the end of Act I was lovely, marked with a phenomenal trumpet solo.
Transplanting the traditional setting of William Hogarth's 18th century, London-based maxim was a feat too complicated for Lepage, who barged ahead with his parable regardless of the libretto's constraints. But the biggest problem was that Wistan Hugh Auden and Chester Kallman's characters, full of tragedy and pathos, failed to provoke any sort of empathy. By the end of the opera, you practically wished that they had all lost at Nick Shadow's card game and had been dragged into hell to suffer as much as we had through Lepage's ineffective direction.