Introducing...The Rake's Progress
We explore John Cox’s much-loved production of The Rake's Progress, bringing David Hockney’s iconic designs to a new generation.
Classic fairy tale meets modern morality play in Stravinsky and WH Auden’s exhilarating fusion of high drama and low comedy. Comedy and tragedy are never far apart in this light-footed work that can break your heart with the broadest of smiles.
The Glyndebourne production premiered in 1975, and is renowned the world over as the definitive staging of the opera.
In the short film below, opera expert Alexandra Coghlan takes a look at the reasons why David Hockney’s designs were such a game changer for period drama. She talks to award-winning production designer Grant Montgomery (whose work includes Sanditon, Peaky Blinders and The Crimson Petal and the White) and Glyndebourne’s curator of exhibitions and collections, Nerissa Taysom to find out more.
A brief introduction
Igor Stravinsky’s only full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress (1951), is also one of the most original and provocative of the 20th century. Wit and postmodern irony meet a classic moral fable in a work librettist WH Auden described as a ‘mixture of fairy story and medieval morality play’.
Rejecting the dissonant, confrontationally avant-garde style of The Rite of Spring in favour of an apparently nostalgic, neo-classical one, the opera takes both its soundworld and structure from baroque and classical models. But all is not as it first appears.
Stravinsky’s Rake may revisit the past, but it’s in order to rethink the musical present. The opera takes inspiration from Mozart, but the result is as much a subversion, an interrogation as a pastiche. The characters may wear old-fashioned musical masks, but they are no period puppets; these are painfully real, flawed human beings whose tragedies are keenly felt, and whose ending is one of the most heart-breaking in the repertoire.
Why not to miss this production
Premiered in 1975 and a fixture of the repertoire since, John Cox and David Hockney’s production of The Rake’s Progress has become one of Glyndebourne’s greats – a definitive staging that has since been seen all over the world from New York to Sydney, Milan to Tel Aviv.
Hockney’s cross-hatched 18th-century sets and costumes transform the opera into a living Hogarth etching, echoing the playful manipulations and distortions of Stravinsky’s score in their flattened, two-dimensional games of perspective.
Are these puppets or people? Is this a historical pastiche or a contemporary subversion? Neither composer nor director refuse to commit, exploring all the tensions and contradictions of this exhilarating piece. As artifice turns to truth, comedy to tragedy, the production’s pastel colours fade to monochrome – life draining from this poignant piece before our eyes. It’s a devastating final gesture that completes this staging’s dramatic sleight-of-hand, transforming a witty, extravagant romp into something heartfelt and human.
A great moment to look out for
‘Gently Little Boat’, Anne’s Act III lullaby to the now-mad Tom, is one of the opera’s most beautiful arias. It’s a disarming moment of purity and absolute simplicity in this cleverest of scores – pure musical and emotional truth expressed in the most straightforward musical terms.
A lulling quasi-Purcellian lullaby melody is accompanied by flutes, and every stanza is answered by the chorus of madhouse residents, who are both soothed and elated by Anne’s song.
Cast and creative team
John Cox and David Hockney’s iconic production returns to the Festival for the first time in over a decade, brought to new life by a dynamic cast under the baton of Glyndebourne’s Music Director, Robin Ticciati.
Tenor Thomas Atkins is Tom Rakewell, returning to Glyndebourne following his appearances as Tamino in 2020’s semi-staged Magic Flute, and Kudrjaš in 2021’s Káťa Kabanová. Sam Carl returns to the role of the sinister Nick Shadow, having been a ‘forceful presence’ (The Times) in our Tour 2021 production.
Soprano Louise Alder (who represented England in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition 2017) makes a welcome return to Glyndebourne as Tom’s beloved Anne. Mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova dons the beard of Baba The Turk.
Image credits: Artwork © Katie Ponder | The Rake’s Progress, Festival 2010, photos by Alastair Muir