The Rake’s Progress review – stylisation tips towards surrealism in ETO’s staging of Stravinsky parable

<span>Part Rococo, part Dalí … The Rake's Progress at the Hackney Empire. </span><span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Part Rococo, part Dalí … The Rake's Progress at the Hackney Empire. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

‘An opera of dazzling surfaces, knowing theatrical tropes and deliberate distancing effects,” is how director Polly Graham describes The Rake’s Progress, in a programme note for her new staging for English Touring Opera. Completed in 1951, Stravinsky’s ironic Hogarthian parable ranges allusively through operatic history in its exploration of the relationship between indolent Tom Rakewell and demonic Nick Shadow, deploying the formalities of 18th-century opera – recitative, aria and ensemble – to distance us from the protagonists even as the music itself exposes their thoughts and feelings with extraordinary poignancy. But where Stravinsky strives for narrative clarity, Graham on occasion tips stylisation towards surrealism, with uneven results.

April Dalton’s designs elide Rococo frippery with the distortion of Dalí, as pictures of eyes and lips materialise on the walls of Mother Goose’s brothel, and bizarre bric-a-brac fills the house where Baba (Lauren Young) lives with Tom (Frederick Jones, unwell on opening night; his understudy, Brenton Spiteri, sang the last two acts from the side of the stage). Some of it is unduly busy. The opening scene between Tom and Anne (Nazan Fikret) now takes place at a May Day festival, during which Tom is already being eyed by Shadow (Jerome Knox), while masked pagan figures, half-human, half animal, dance round a maypole. There’s more maypole later on in the graveyard scene, which proves distracting.

Some of it is striking. Casting a younger baritone than usual as Shadow allows her to present the pair as alter egos rather than middle-aged mentor and hapless protege. We’re never quite sure whether or not London is a hell on earth populated by Shadows’s demonic minions, while Bedlam, ironically, seems the only calm place in a world where “good or bad, all men are mad,” as Baba puts it. Elsewhere, however, Graham’s ideas sometimes don’t quite work. Anne sets out to redeem Tom as a warrior heroine in trousers and chainmail, brandishing a sword like Bradamante in Handel’s Alcina, which comes close to undermining Stravinsky’s depiction of her courage as born of simple goodness.

That it does not is due to Fikret, who sings with a wonderfully silvery tone and great depth of feeling throughout. This is one of several superb performances in an evening which, musically, is consistently fine. Knox’s elegant Shadow is all the more dangerous for being so plausibly charming, even when he is at his most malevolent. A couple of moments of wayward intonation apart, Jones didn’t sound as if he was struggling in Act I: Spiteri’s voice is slightly darker, nicely combining weight with lyricism. Young, meanwhile, makes a really fine Baba, funny, self-assured, tellingly compassionate beneath the self-dramatisation. In the pit, Jack Sheen propels the score urgently forwards. It’s beautifully played with some wonderfully precise, elegant instrumental solos, and the choral singing is first rate.

• At Norwich Theatre Royal on 8 March, then touring