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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