REVIEW: A Rake’s Progress at York Theatre Royal

27/04/2024

Grace Bannister (she/her) reviews recent revival of the 1951 opera

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Image by Richard Hubert Smith

By Grace Bannister

As it was my first time at the opera, I really didn’t know what to expect – or to wear! But, having decided on a smart enough outfit, and being handed a programme and my ticket by the man on the front desk, I was ready to settle into my seat for the next two and a bit hours.

The opera was A Rake’s Progress, directed by Polly Graham and performed at the York Theatre Royal by the English Touring Opera Company. To my pleasant surprise, it had an English libretto (which I have now discovered to be a kind-of hybrid between a musical score and script) written by poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman in the 20th century. Their poetry was based on the 18th century painter and printmaker William Hogarth which depicted a storyboard detailing the life of Tom Rakewell. Stravinski later composed a musical score to these lyrics, if you can call them that.

I sat in my seat and listened to the orchestra begin to warm up with anticipation, the trills of flutes accompanying some seemingly more experienced opera goers into their seats.

And then it began.

I was intrigued to find a slanted and layered stage with mirrored flooring behind the heavy, red curtain. The cast gathered round a maypole in the centre of the stage, barefooted and wearing whimsical animal masks, creating a fantastical atmosphere, before dancing around it in the opening scene. The audience were then introduced to a pair of lovers: Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell. Motifs of modern dating strife were met with laughter from the audience as Anne’s father told both Anne and the audience that “she may take a poor husband, if she choose” but that “she shall never marry a lazy one”.

The audience follows Rakewell on his journey from modesty to fortune, realising he’s been betrayed by his apparent friend Shadow, and returning home to Anne. And that’s without mentioning his marriage to Baba the bearded woman and the feature of some Greggs donuts.

The plot is enhanced by Amy Trigg’s costuming ranging from titillating dresses, to intricate Georgian costumes including the expected wigs and makeup. Modern elements rear their heads throughout the performance, such as Greggs donuts, and silver, helium balloons to deliver messages and thus reminding the audience that Polly Graham’s A Rake’s Progress is no ordinary opera. By the end, Rakewell has descended into madness but is finally reunited with Anne Trulove.

Before the final bows, the cast members come forward to offer the audience life and breaking the fourth wall. Comedic-relief character Baba the Bearded Woman warns that “good or bad, all men are mad, all they say or do is theatre”. The cast also take this moment to inform the audience of the morals to draw from this story: that not every rake can be rescued by love, and that “not every man is given an Anne”.

Though I am certainly no opera-connoisseur, I would definitely recommend A Rake’s Progress, particularly as a first-time opera. And perhaps when I walk into the theatre to watch my next opera, I’ll do so with a little more authority!

Editor’s note: This performance of The Rake’s Progress by the English Touring Opera Company was seen on 20th April at the York Theatre Royal.