Stravinsky’s music cannot quite be described as melodic, but it is certainly interesting and evocative. Music Director Richard Gill conducts Orchestra Victoria in a well-controlled, skillful performance of the challenging score. The wide-open pit of the Playhouse allows the full texture and intricacy of the music to be heard, even if the horns and bassoons occasionally threaten to overpower the singers.
Of particular beauty is the poetic libretto, penned by W.H Auden and his life partner Chester Kallman. Sung in English, carefully edited surtitles enhance the clarity by capturing the majority of the elegant phrases. Diction is clear throughout, with recitative particularly easy to follow.
The intriguing scenario, based on a series of eight canvases by 18th century artist William Hogarth, follows the progress of Tom Rakewell (Benjamin Namdarian) as he is tempted the Mephistophelian Nick Shadow (Andrew Collis). Rakewell abandons his true love Anne Trulove (Tiffany Speight) as he gives into a series of temptations, each fraught with increasingly unpleasant consequences.
Interest is maintained well enough due to the short scenes and colourful characters, but ultimately the journey is more of a ramble than a compelling narrative. The sure hand of Director John Bell is seen in the clear storytelling, creative characterisation and terrific blocking that far transcends the ‘stand and sing’ simplicity often seen at bigger opera companies. Strong support has come from Choreographer and Assistant Director Steven Heathcote, who has created a fascinating vocabulary of movement for the ensemble in particular.
Namdarian is enormously likeable, even though you want to shake his character for the lusty and avaricious choices he makes. His fine tenor voice will only improve in strength and volume as he grows a little older. Speight is reliably golden voiced and supremely poised. Her extended aria “No word from Tom” is absolutely superb. As gorgeous as Speight is, the pair are, however, not overly well matched physically, with the slight, youthful Namdarian looking more like Anne’s son than lover, especially in their final scene at the asylum.
In fine form, Collis sings with focus and vigour. Jonathon Bode is a lascivious Mother Goose and adopts an unusually strong Australian accent as Sellem, the Auctioneer. Roxanne Hislop is a wonderful Baba the Turk, ill-chosen wife of Rakewell. Even with full beard and moustache, Hislop’s radiant beauty shines through, and her soprano voice is as delightful as ever.
Designer Leon Krasenstein sets the action of the multiple scenes on a marble floor and backdrop, the relative simplicity of the scenic design deliberately offset by the extravagantly coloured costumes. Clever use is made of a multitude of checkered fabrics that create a dissonant but eye-catching clash. Baba’s citrus circus dress and carriage are especially impressive.
Hearty congratulations go to the hard working ensemble, who not only sing with power and clear diction but also act with individuality, move with style and even carry props and scenery when required.
A production that has plenty to admire, Victorian Opera should be rightfully proud of all they have achieved here.
The Rake’s Progress plays at Playhouse, the Arts Centre until 27 March 2012.
Photos: Jeff Busby, used by express permission of Victorian Opera.