The Progress of a Rake Begins…

The Rake’s Progress premiere with Barbara Hannigan, EQ Artists and the Gothengurg Symphony. Photo by Mats Backer

Special Report from Thomas W. Morris (December 13, 2018)

I am writing this from Gothenburg, a beautiful quiet city in southern Sweden, home of the Gothenburg Symphony, the National Orchestra of Sweden. The widely recorded orchestra has a distinguished conductor heritage with Barbara Hannigan along with Christoph Eschenbach serving as Principal Guest Conductors and Gustavo Dudamel as Honorary Conductor. Former Ojai Music Director Kent Nagano served as Principal Guest Conductor for the last five years.

The occasion here was the world premiere of the new fully staged production of Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, The Rake’s Progress, a co-production of the Gothenburg Symphony, Brussel’s Klara Festival, the Munich Philharmonic, and the Ojai and Aldeburgh Music Festivals. This same production will open the 2019 Festival on Thursday, June 6 in Libbey Bowl.

The Rakes Progress is an astonishing morality tale of good and evil, with text by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, and composed in Stravinsky’s most delicious neoclassic style. The 45-piece orchestra has all the rhythmic clarity found in the classic operas of Mozart, down to the ever present sparkle of a harpsichord continuo. There are arias, ensemble pieces, recitatives, and choruses, all framed in some of Stravinsky’s most bracing, stylish and rhythmically pointed music. The work is full of deep and stark drama, but also enormous humor – a perfect meld of the sublime and the ridiculous.

The production is and performances were out of this world. The mastermind was Barbara Hannigan who conceived the project and conducted, in fact it was her operatic conducting debut. Two years ago, Barbara founded Equilibrium (EQ), her mentoring initiative for young professional artists in the early stage of their careers. She reviewed over 300 applications for the project and personally auditioned over 100 singers and conductors a year ago. 22 were selected to participate during this first year, who come from all over the world.. Through the course of the year, Barbara conducts about three weeks of workshops outside Paris with the group, with the goal of teaching performance practices, refining interpretive issues in particular works, coping with the peculiar challenges of an artist’s life on the road, and functioning at the highest level of professionalism in the face of often challenging circumstances. Joining her in teaching are a yoga instructor from Amsterdam and the incredible Jackie Reardon, world famous tennis player and tennis coach who now spends her career as a life coach and motivational teacher, and author of several books and online teaching courses called Mindset and Friendly Eyes.

The artists also work with Barbara in her own various projects, including The Rake’s Progress. EQ singers form three separate casts for Rake’s (the opera requires six singers). This rotating cast will be working with Barbara in this new production to be performed three times in Gothenburg (I heard the first two performances), two performances at Brussels Klara Festival in March, two performances with the Munich Philharmonic in early May, five concert performances in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris, Dortmund and Dresden in late May, and then one performance in Ojai June 6 and a final one in Aldeburgh June 20.The Brussels cast will be the same that comes to Ojai and Aldeburgh.

Barbara engaged the noted young director Linus Fellbom to create, design, light, and direct the production, originally conceived as a “semi-staged” production – vastly simpler than traditional fully-staged productions and usually necessary because of the need to adapt a production to many difference places, different kinds of halls (concerts halls in Gothenburg, Munich, and Aldeburgh), a traditional opera house in Brussels), and different environments such as the unique outdoor setting of Ojai’s Libbey Bowl. “Semi-staged” productions also have the advantage of requiring far less preparation times to set up, a significant factor with so many performances in different places, as well as usually far less in terms of budgets. What Linus has incredibly created is a “fully-staged” production under “semi-staged” limitations. It is a marvel of compactness, power and simplicity – one that will be fascinating in so many different settings.

While not wanting to give away the surprises, I will say the production is based on the concept of an opera production which lands mysteriously in the various settings in gigantic wooden box, plopping itself down the center of the stage, behind which is the orchestra and on the sides of which is the chorus. As the opera unfolds, the box assumes life of its own, framing not only the singing and acting but astonishingly becoming the center of the drama itself. The work’s powerful climax contains a most stunning coups de theater that will take your breath away.

I saw two performances in Gothenburg, and both were thrilling. The production was over the top in its power and meaning, and the singing and acting by the unique Gothenburg cast from EQ simply the best I have ever heard in this opera, both individually and also as an ensemble. A note that singing the title role of Anne Truelove was Aphrodite Patoulidou, a young Greek soprano, who will also sing the role in Ojai: remember this name and the fact that you can say you discovered her in Ojai, much the same as discovering the young Julia Bullock in Ojai in 2011. The sheer energy, ensemble and vocal art of all of these young performers was totally captivating. The audience rose to its feet at the end in loud cheers each night. Reviews have been ecstatic. And above it all, Barbara Hannigan’s mastery of the score, her incisive conducting and her electrifying presence gave coherent shape, energy and power to the whole score.

Ojai is in for a treat. The Rake’s Progress has not been widely performed in southern California, only two touring performances in the 1960s and a performance about five years ago by Opera Pacifica. (Neither the LA Opera or LA Philharmonic have performed the work.) Ojai amazingly has heard performances of three excerpts from the work – the so-called Bedlam Scene in 1962 conducted by the Lukas Foss, and Anne Truelove’s famous aria scene in 1956 conducted by Robert Craft, and again in 1968, conducted by Lawrence Foster. I am so proud we can open the 2019 Festival with this fully-staged production – which not only expands our range of production capabilities but ties neatly to the fact that Stravinsky himself was Ojai Music Director in 1956, just five years after composing Rake’s.

As the devilish Nick Shadow says at the end of the first scene – “the progress of a Rake begins” –  indeed, a journey that will last the whole season for Barbara Hannigan, and of which we will be the beneficiary in June, an event not to be missed.