Garden gates and oil fields: How directors bring The Rake’s Progress to life

The Rake's Progress performed by Glyndebourne Opera

Nick appears immediately at the garden gate.

A simple enough statement, you might think. But for an opera director, maybe not.

This stage direction is from the first scene of The Rake’s Progress, the 1951 opera by Igor Stravinsky and two librettists, W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. By the time Nick appears, the libretto has already told us that Tom Rakewell is alone in the garden of his fiancée, Anne Trulove. Nick—surname Shadow—is a stranger, who uncannily appears the very moment that Tom makes a wish for money.

How do you “appear immediately” at a gate, though? A gate isn’t a door—you can see through it, so you can see people walk up to it. So how can Nick’s appearance be as sudden as the phrase implies? Surely he doesn’t jump out of the bushes. Perhaps he appears in a puff of smoke? But wouldn’t the librettists have mentioned that?

An opera director has a lot more to deal with than the logistics of garden gates. But it’s problems like this that get to the heart of a director’s approach: what can they add, that the libretto and the score only hint at? Is a literal interpretation of an instruction like the one above, with Nick briskly sauntering up to a standard-issue garden gate, really more faithful to the text than an interpretation that more vividly conveys a sense of surprise?

There have been many stagings of The Rake’s Progress over the years, but there haven’t been quite as many garden gates. Two of the opera’s best-known productions, in fact—those by John Cox for Glyndebourne, and Robert Lepage for the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels—are both gate-free zones. But, in different ways, both show how it’s possible for directors and their creative teams to move away from the precise details of the text, in order to better tell the story.

From England to Hollywood

Of the two versions, Cox’s is the older, and in many ways the more traditional. Cox was Director of Production at Glyndebourne when he created this staging in 1975—Stravinsky had died just four years earlier—and for the sets and costumes he signed up the famous British artist David Hockney. Between them, they created an amazingly durable production, still in Glyndebourne’s repertoire today.

Cox and Hockney follow the libretto’s lead and set the action in “eighteenth-century England,” although Hockney’s designs, which often expand on cross-hatched sketches and make brilliant, subtle use of color, cast the whole thing in a distinctly twentieth-century glare. You could say almost exactly the same of Stravinsky’s neoclassical score: filled with references to the musical past, it has a particular affinity with the Classical works of Mozart—yet the overall effect is completely of its time in the mid-twentieth century.

Elena Manistina as Baba the Turk, Glyndebourne

Canadian director Robert Lepage’s production dates from 2007. Since its premiere at La Monnaie in Brussels it has traveled to Lyon, San Francisco, Madrid, and the Royal Opera House in London. Lepage doesn’t set it in eighteenth-century England at all. Instead, we’re transported to 1950s America: first an oil field, perhaps in Texas, and later Hollywood—which, as it happens, was where Stravinsky lived when he wrote the opera. Tom is a typical young American in denim and a plaid shirt, and Anne’s father is an oil baron.

Andrew Kennedy as Tom Rakewell, Théâtre de la Monnaie

That might sound deliberately disrespectful to the opera. But it’s not. Lepage writes in a persuasive program note: “Stravinsky has long been described as a neoclassical composer—wrongly so, in my opinion… It is my impression that Stravinsky’s musical interests go far beyond simply styles and periods.” Compare that to Stravinsky’s own declaration: “Can a composer re-use the past and at the same time move in a forward direction?… I ask the listener to suspend the question as I did while composing and… to try to discover the opera’s own qualities.” By ditching the eighteenth-century setting, Lepage finds a way to stop thinking about the opera’s style, and concentrate instead on its ideas. Stravinsky might have been delighted.

William Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress, Plate 1: The Young Heir Takes Possession of the Miser

There are ideas galore, after all. The Rake’s Progress is loosely based on a series of early eighteenth-century prints by William Hogarth, which tell the tale of a young man who suddenly comes into money. He leaves behind his fiancée and embarks on a disastrous journey around London, frequenting brothels, losing his fortune and marrying an elderly woman for her money. He ends up in an asylum. In the operatic telling, the young man—Tom—is guided by Nick Shadow, who, echoing the Faust story, is the Devil in disguise. It’s a perfect story for opera, with a simple but dramatic outline and some brilliant set pieces. But it’s also ripe for reinterpretation. Let’s go back to the garden gate—or, rather, its absence.

Two productions, no gates

Cox and Hockney’s opening scene is subtle in the touches that it adds. The costumes make it clear we’re in the eighteenth century, and the garden’s huge trees frame a backdrop of rolling hills and a deep blue sky. Anne sits on a swing, symbolic of youth. But there is no gate—instead, in the middle of the solid wooden fence is a large, imposing door.

Just before Nick appears, Tom sings a solo aria in which he explains how, while he longs to be rich, he doesn’t feel he should have to work for it. He concludes by ruefully declaring, “I wish I had money!”—when, after a sinister harpsichord flourish, that huge door swings suddenly open, revealing Nick standing behind it, his arms flat against his side as if the door has opened of its own accord. So—no garden gate, but “appears immediately”? Absolutely.

(Topi Lehtipuu and Matthew Rose, Glyndebourne)

No gate or door adorns the set in Lepage’s imagining. Tom stands in the middle of a vast plain which extends, via a panoramic video screen, as far as we can see. He is alone with only a picnic blanket and an oil derrick, which illustrates the Trulove family business. What about Nick? He emerges from underground via a trapdoor, dressed all in black, covered in oil. So it’s certainly a surprizing, abrupt entrance—and it also points us towards a key theme. Nick is almost the literal embodiment of Tom’s longing for money: a walking, talking blob of oil.

(Andrew Kennedy and William Shimell, Théâtre de la Monnaie)

Lepage finds other ways to express this capitalistic, “American Dream” theme as his production goes on. When Tom visits the brothel, Nick is manning a cine-camera: he’s making a movie out of Tom’s corruption. It later becomes clear that the opera’s London setting has been transposed to Hollywood, and Tom is an actor bored of his sudden, undeserved wealth. When he suddenly marries the annoying bearded woman Baba the Turk, the Hollywood setting makes the match seem more plausible: it’s just another ridiculous celebrity wedding. And Nick is still filming everything, to the point that, near the end, when Tom is confined to an asylum, a TV screen on stage shows a mixture of live shots of Tom in his insanity, and reminiscences of earlier moments in his life.

There’s a moral to draw

Lepage’s asylum itself, though, is imagined in a thoroughly conventional style, with white walls, straitjackets, unkempt hair and sombre nurses; Tom is just one of many lost-looking patients. The Cox production is far more daring here: the chorus of patients is placed away from Tom in a curious, geometrically precise grid, each one wearing a surreal sculpted mask. Are they really there? Or are they figments of Tom’s addled imagination? It’s particularly striking because of how sudden the change in style is—a stark abstraction replaces the loose naturalism of the preceding scenes, poetically illustrating all that Tom has lost.

▶️ Click here to watch the full production!

Not that Lepage’s interpretation is simplistic. In his asylum scene, Tom’s similarity to his fellow patients hints at another point: Tom’s story, though dramatically told, is a commonplace, unexceptional one. The same thing, more or less, could happen to any of us. And that’s actually the point with which Auden and Kallman conclude the libretto, in the opera’s brief, “moralistic” epilogue.

▶️ Click here to watch the full production!

So: which of these two productions is closer to the intentions of Stravinsky, Auden and Kallman? True, Cox and Hockney retain the period setting, but they still take plenty of liberties. Lepage, meanwhile, reimagines everything, but always in order to highlight themes present in the text. Perhaps the better answer to this question is more concise: does it really matter? Opera is about so much more than honoring the works it puts on the stage: it’s about storytelling, drama, life, death, spectacle. It may demand to be taken seriously, but it’s also an evening’s entertainment, and something to stimulate debate.

Who does a director answer to, anyway? These days, the composer and librettist are seldom on hand to help—but even if they are, once the opera gets to the stage, it’s the director calling the shots. Their ultimate responsibility isn’t to the people who created the opera—it’s to the people who come to see it.

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