Varying the Song: The Rake’s Progress at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Stravinsky – The Rake’s Progress

Ann Trulove – Sara Blanch
Tom Rakewell – Matthew Swensen
Nick Shadow – Vito Priante
Keeper of the Madhouse – Matteo Torcaso
Trulove – James Platt
Mother Goose – Marie-Claude Chappuis
Baba the Turk – Adriana di Paola
Sellem – Christian Collia

Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino / Daniele Gatti.
Stage director – Frederic Wake-Walker.

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro del Maggio, Florence, Italy.  Sunday, March 26th, 2023.

Today’s performance of The Rake’s Progress at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino was actually the last of the run, something you, chers lecteurs, will no doubt regret because having read this review you’ll wish you’d also seen it.  It was one of those evenings that reminded us that this really is one of the greatest of art forms, and that Stravinsky and Auden’s collaboration really is a masterpiece.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

Of course, The Rake’s Progress was in fact born in Italy, having received its premiere at the Venetian Fenice in 1951.  For this new production, the Maggio confided the staging to Frederic Wake-Walker, with house musical director Daniele Gatti leading from the pit.  As it was performed in the multifunction Sala Zubin Mehta, Wake-Walker took an innovative approach to working within the Sala’s more limited theatrical facilities.  Rather than conventional sets, Wake-Walker used video panels to set the scene, designed by Ergo Phizmiz.  The advantage of this approach is that it allowed Wake-Walker to provide constantly-changing backdrops to the action.  The Truloves lived in a verdant countryside, while being outfitted in eighteenth-century costumes.  As soon as Tom got to London, the video settings were updated to the modern day and the costumes become delightfully outlandish.  Many congratulations are due to the Maggio chorus for their energy in dancing in garish hotpants and garbage bags, while Adriana di Paola’s Baba totally worked it in a skin-tight silver jumpsuit.  There was an eclectic energy to Wake-Walker’s staging that felt utterly original, yet also amplified Stravinsky’s equally eclectic score. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

Personenregie was both intricate and highly believable.  Through his singers, Wake-Walker also brought out that conflict between the country and the city, as well as the loneliness of Tom’s humanity and the deep, selfless love of Anne, who stayed faithful to him until the end.  The technology wasn’t quite faultless – while Tom contemplated the futility of his life in a 1960s London tower block, the video crashed to a start-up screen.  Otherwise, it actually worked very well.  I also found that having Baba, rather than a bearded lady, as instead a bald-headed social media star, was a clever twist, particularly as Tom cut off her ravings by dropping her phone in a drink, causing her to faint and cut off her live stream.  Above all, this was a clever and vibrant piece of theatre, one that the cast clearly relished being a part of.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

I must admit to having some advance trepidation with regards to the prospect of Daniele Gatti’s conducting, following his lifeless Don Carlo here at the start of the year.  I needn’t have worried.  Gatti led an intelligent and fluent reading.  Tempi were pretty much ideal, brisk and full of life.  I found it an especially nice touch to have asked the strings to play senza vibrato when accompanying the Trulove’s music, echoing that split in the costumes on stage, between the rustic historicism and modern life.  The Maggio orchestra responded to him as one, finding a beauty and charm in Stravinsky’s angular writing.  Lorenzo Fratini’s chorus was superb, singing with staggering accuracy as they recounted their hectic day, and all in such terrifically clear English.  I should also mention the deliciously tart mezzos, who brought a welcome spice to the texture.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

Sara Blanch.  Make a note of this name.  There are moments when a confirmed atheist like me can be convinced that there may well be a higher power.  Listening to Blanch sing is one of those.  What a phenomenal talent!  The voice has a creamy core and soars with ease above the stave.  She gave her ‘no word from Tom’ an almost improvisatory freedom, making those long melismatic lines mean something, the voice soaring effortlessly and opening up on high with great beauty.  Yes, there’s a touch of breathiness that enters the tone at lower volumes and some of her consonants were a bit Catalan in flavour.  Make no mistake, however, Blanch is a prodigiously gifted singer, an instinctive natural musician, a fabulous technician, and has a truly remarkable natural gift.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

Matthew Swensen gave us a lyrically sung Tom Rakewell.  It took him a little while to find his form, his ‘here I stand’ was a bit approximate in tuning.  Although the cast aimed to sing in standard London English, some of Swensen’s consonants and diphthongs were a bit more of London, Ohio in nature.  Still, his easy line, bright, focused tone, and his delicate shading in his duet with Anne, all gave much pleasure.  Vito Priante was a superb Nick Shadow.  He sang his music off the text, revelling in the richness of invention of Auden’s libretto.  His velvety baritone was nicely insinuating throughout, and he fulminated with generous force in his rage aria. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

Di Paola sang Baba in a fruity contralto, with a full and rich bottom.  She was rather stretched verbally by the rapid-fire patter – her vocal technique is very open, which meant she didn’t exploit the richness of the consonants to project the tone.  Her stage presence was, however, fabulous, and she seemed to be having the time of her life.  Marie-Claude Chappuis was a glamourous Mother Goose, singing in a healthy mezzo with excellent English.  James Platt was a tower of strength as Trulove, his richly resonant bass a pleasure to hear.  Christian Collia was an extrovert Sellem, singing in a charming Calabrese-accented English. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

This was a wonderful afternoon in the theatre.  Wake-Walker has given us a tremendously vibrant staging, one full of fantasy, but that also allowed us to live and sympathize with Anne’s love for Tom, and his solitude and isolation in the asylum.  It was superbly conducted and sung, extremely well cast across the board, and the house forces were on terrific form.  Today also introduced us to a major talent in Blanch.  Without doubt a show to remember.  The Florentine audience rewarded the cast with a generous ovation – particularly so for Gatti and Blanch. 

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