The Descent: The Rake’s Progress from the Festival Aix-en-Provence

Stravinsky – The Rake’s Progress

Ann Trulove – Julia Bullock
Tom Rakewell – Paul Appleby
Nick Shadow – Kyle Ketelsen
Keeper of the Madhouse – Evan Hughes
Trulove – David Pittsinger
Mother Goose – Hilary Summers
Baba the Turk – Andrew Watts
Sellem – Alan Oke

English Voices, Orchestre de Paris / Eivind Gullberg Jensen
Stage director – Simon McBurney.  Video director – François Roussillon. 

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Tuesday, July 11th, 2017.  Streamed via la Scène numérique du Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. 

Following the cancellation of this year’s edition, the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has dug into its archive to stream several of its many successes of recent years over the course of the next week or so.  They include Tcherniakov’s radical Carmen, Honoré’s rethinking of Tosca and Castellucci’s visionary Mozart Requiem.  In addition, they are also streaming Chréau’s seminal 2013 Elektra with the greatest interpreter of the role of our time, Evelyn Hertlizius, in the title role.

This Rake’s Progress, a co-production with Amsterdam’s De Nationale Opera, was seen at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché in 2017.  The Archevêché is a magical place.  There’s nothing quite like watching well-cast and intelligently-staged opera under the Provencal stars.  For this production, the Festival engaged Simon McBurney to direct Stravinsky’s and Auden’s morality play.  McBurney gives us a highly visual staging, one which must have had significant impact live.  The curtain rises to reveal a white room, with Tom huddled in the corner.  As the opera starts, the white space containing the action, becomes illustrated with imagery relevant to the scene taking place.  This was produced by video designer Will Duke, assisted by Philippine Laureau.  Shadow makes his first entry not on the stage, but instead with his shadow projected on to the surface of the set.  The set is the revealed to have been made from paper, ripped apart as Shadow makes his entry, reflecting Shadow’s influence in Tom’s life taking the course that it does.  As the evening evolves, the set is populated by a single bed, upon which Tom receives suitors of a variety of genders, while the video imagery continues to provide the relevant visual background.  McBurney makes use of some fascinating imagery, whether scenes of London’s Shaftesbury Avenue at night, as Shadow and Tom head into the city, or the view from a penthouse in the City of London where Tom receives his suitors.  Similarly, Baba’s apartment is set up as a rococo living room with the objects of her collection penetrating through the walls and the ceiling.

Photo: © Pascal Victor | Artcompress

It makes for a striking setting, McBurney making it very much a twenty-first century reading of a classic tale.  Especially memorable is the sight of Shadow claiming his wages from Tom, surrounded by nooses, knives and poison emerging from the floor of the set.  It would be easy for the visuals to overwhelm the individual performances, but the strength of McBurney’s staging is that this is definitely not the case.  There’s a tenderness to Julia Bullock’s Ann and Andrew Watt’s Baba’s interaction that I haven’t seen before.  Similarly, the delicious campiness of Hilary Summers’ Mother Goose, enjoying the young men in her entourage while being fed a bunch of grapes was tremendous value.  The sheer dramatic tension in the encounter between Tom and Shadow in the graveyard, with Paul Appleby’s Rakewell’s disintegration palpable, was utterly compelling even on the small screen.

Photo: © Pascal Victor | Artcompress

Musically, it was more than satisfactory.  Appleby sang his music in an attractive, bright, lyric tenor.  It did strike me that it took a little while for him to warm up.  His opening aria was cavalier in pitching with the tone forced.  As the evening progressed, he clearly came into his stride and tuning improved, the tone ripe and even throughout.  Bullock gave us an Ann of silvery beauty, varying the vibrato to colour the tone.  She brought an improvisatory freedom to the long melismatic lines of her big scene and capped it with a shining and easy high C.  Through her attention to text and tenderness of phrasing, she made Ann a much more three-dimensional character than we often hear – an impressive and highly musical assumption.  Kyle Ketelsen gave us a commanding Shadow.  The tone was devilishly dark and his music always sung off the text, always insinuating and persuasive.  He rose to his aria of rage with ease, no blustering here, everything truly sung.

Photo: © Pascal Victor | Artcompress

Andrew Watts was an interesting choice for Baba and I’m not convinced it was entirely successful.  The music seems to sit awkwardly for his countertenor, the register breaks pronounced and audible.  Diction was also unclear as a result of the effort to get the notes out.  The longer phrases of Baba’s encounter with Ann were more lyrically sung, with the words more forward, but ultimately my impression was of a fine singer, giving a dedicated performance, but ultimately mis-cast.  Hilary Summers brought her full and rounded contralto to Mother Goose – indeed, it was a shame that she wasn’t cast as Baba.  David Pittsinger was a lugubrious Trulove, while Alan Oke sang Sellem in a piquant and characterful tenor.

The piece was sung, with the one exception mentioned above, in exceptionally crisp English.  This was also the case for the chorus, provided by English Voices.  However, as recorded, they sounded rather understaffed, lacking in the ideal body of tone for the excitement of ‘Ruin! Disaster! Shame!’.  Although they did find some haunting beauty of tone in their farewell to Tom in the asylum, which was impeccably tuned.  The Orchestre de Paris was on very good form for Eivind Gullberg Jensen, dispatching the angular writing with easy virtuosity.  Jensen’s tempi did feel on the more moderate side and I felt myself wishing for some more vigour in places, a sense of the strings digging deep and the rhythms more pointed, although that was certainly the case in the epilogue.  He did however bring out a range of colour from the band, bringing the originality of the orchestral writing to the fore.

Photo: © Pascal Victor | Artcompress

This was a highly visual staging, one that transformed the work into a contemporary and engaging interpretation of a classic tale.  It was definitely striking on the small screen and must have had even more impact live.  Musically, apart from a few reservations, it was very satisfying, highlighting a major talent in Bullock and Ketelsen’s gripping Shadow.  Undoubtedly, a fine souvenir of this very special festival, which is most definitely missed this year.

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