Bury St Edmunds Festival: Opera

The Rake's Progress: Stravinsky, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, 22 May

The Rake's Progress: Stravinsky, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, May 22

Opera East's witty incisive performance of Stravinsky's only full-length opera is at two Suffolk venues this week. The first was the company's debut appearance at the Bury Festival; the second is at the Barrandov Opera, Needham Market.

It's an absorbing morality tale, showing the reverse of Bunyan's progress towards Heaven. This is the downward path, via a dissolute life and a pact with the devil

It's exciting Stravinsky, a perceptive work for an immediate, and devastated post-war world, here well performed. Its spare, structured music harks back to the Baroque but is full of characteristic dissonances, adventurous harmonies, and whimsical rhythms.

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The inspiration was an exhibition of Hogarth etchings. Having seen it, Stravinsky commissioned the poet W.H Auden to write the libretto and it first saw the opera stage in1951.

We follow the plunging life of Tom Rakewell, who spurns the countryside for increasingly bleak adventures in London. He's caught up in depravity and loss and, in an increasingly crazy descending whirl, even marries a fractious bearded lady from the circus.

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Tom has two influences on his life. One is the Devil's corrupting agent, Nick Shadow (Daniel Grice). The other is Tom's country sweetheart (Rebecca van den Berg) who does her best to use her love to redeem him. She saves Tom from the fires of hell but not from Bedlam.

This is a touring production involving simple but inventive staging, strong singing and fine orchestral playing. There are some wonderful scenes - the auction when Tom's goods are sold off, the graveyard where Nick Shadow reveals his identity, and where they play cards for Tom's soul.

The Cathedral's acoustics are not good for operatic performance it has to be said. However, Daniel Grice's insidious Nick Shadow was, for me, the towering performance. Peter Wilman as Tom was strong and the soprano voice of Rebecca van den Berg carried hauntingly all round the building.

There were some nice satiric production touches - the use of mobile phones as cameras, a camcorder, and everyone in the madhouse had a laptop.

Oliver Gooch, who conducted, brought the best out of his musicians. Unknowingly however, he committed the unforgivable by standing in front of the low stage. The Cathedral doesn't have raked seats and he was simply blocking the view for many people.

Ivan Howlett

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