Monday, 24 November 2008

The Rake's Progress into the madhouse

Martin Kusej's soft porn version of Igor Stravinsky's ground-breaking opera (libretto: W H Auden and Chester Kallman), starring Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell, Alastair Miles as Nick Shadow, Adriana Kucerova as Anne Trulove, Anne Sofie von Otter as T├╝rkenbab and Carole Wilson as Mother Goose, was performed last night at Vienna's Theater an der Wien.
Maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt, now well into his mid-70s (how much longer can he go on?) conjured a magical performance of Stravinsky's melodious and atmospheric music from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. It was one of those wonderful nights to remember. Everybody at the top of their game. And it all concluded with an euphoria of ecstacy when the clapping, whistling, cheering, bravoing, opera public rose to its feet as one.
It began with the young lovers Anne and Tom, a picture of boredom, idle on a mattress in a bare room containing not much more than a television and a remote control. The floor littered with beer cans and pizza boxes. When Rakewell's alter ego Shadow slipped out of a discarded pizza box to announce 'The progress of the rake begins' the audience suspected it might be in for something special.
Nick Shadow brought the news that Tom had suddenly come into a fortune upon the death of a distant relative. It was to be his downfall. Bank notes were soon littering the stage like worthless confetti.
The trail into degeneration and madness led from the pizza strewn bedroom, to the great orgy of lust in the bordello, to the mind numbing boredom of the luxury champagne and swimming pool life, to Tom's invention; a bread making machine that doesn't work (video of the bread and fish feeding of the 5,000), to the marriage to the celebrated bearded lady, to her supposed murder, to the auction of all her fish and fowl and to the auction of her body, now miraculously coming to life, to Tom's Adonis and Venus nightmare, and to his final descent into madness and death (New Year's Eve 2008 celebrations running on TV).
It was written in 1951 but it plays as if it was written only last week. The corruption, the risk-taking, the bankruptcy, the superifical lifestyles, the gambling (Tom plays for high stakes with the cards - his life); the eternal themes that are with us today. It could only have been written by a poet. The original Rake's Progress premiered in Vienna, the town where Auden lived at the time of his death, just round the corner from another opera house, the more conservative Vienna State Opera.
Today, Poet-in-Residence reflects that Stravinsky spoke with Dylan Thomas about the possibility of working together on an opera. But it was not to be. Before the project could get off the ground Thomas died of a cocaine and alcohol induced coma, cheered along the merry way, his own Rake's Progress, and cast aside by the mad Manhattan crowd too eager for kicks; his only hope, his own Nick Shadow, a 'Milton with a winking needle'.


  1. Thanks John,
    It's always good to get your verdict! By the way, the quote in the last line is from a Dylan Thomas letter (almost sure it was to his wife Caitlin, but of course could have been to Vernon Watkins) about one of the New York drinking sprees when he ended up beyond legless and was 'saved' by the 'winking needle' of a fellow boozer, a Dr. Milton. The same 'winking needle' that finally failed.


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