A typical canal view in Ghent
Over the last few days, I’ve been in Ghent and Antwerp, both of which I admired, though Ghent was especially winning. It seems to have all the beauty of Bruges, but to actually operate as a real city, as opposed to some degraded Disneyland-like version of its former self. For one thing, the city is bigger, and yet does not have nearly as many tourists. What it does have, being a university town, is large groups of young people, and that gives the place a strong sense of vitality. Antwerp is also an extremely interesting place, and while not quite so picturesque as Bruges or Ghent (mainly, I suppose, because canals are not so integrated into the core of Antwerp as they are in those other two), it certainly has its fair share of historical buildings. Antwerp is probably at its best in the evenings when the night-life you’d expect from one of the major fashion centres of Europe comes alive.
As I’d hoped, I was able to see the production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which was directed by Robert Lepage, at La Monnaie in Brussels the other night. This opera is nominally based on the series of paintings by William Hogarth, although the libretto, written in part by W.H. Auden (the libretto is a little reminiscent of some of Auden’s plays), moves quite a distance from anything Hogarth painted, and Lepage’s production moves further, leaving eighteenth century London almost completely behind.
Instead, Lepage has set the opera in 1950s Texas (the opera was written in 1951), and a photo of a house in the middle of a field that appears in the programme (itself a clever pastiche of a 1950s Life magazine), which I think is a still taken from the James Dean/Rock Hudson/Elizabeth Taylor movie Giant, is a good clue to the centre of gravity Lepage has chosen. The first scene takes place with an oil rig pumping away against a beautiful sky (the clouds moving slowly all the while), and Nick Darkness, the Mephistopheles of the tale, climbs straight out of an oil well, glistening and black. If this is the home in place of the country squire’s estate Auden offers, it makes perfect sense that where Auden moves the action into the fantastic and dissolute world of London to corrupt his hero, Tom Rakewell, Lepage moves into the desert, to the world of Hollywood films and Las Vegas. The brothel scene is shifted into a cheap Hollywood movie, Tom becoming a film star.
One of the best devices is when a small grey mass appears out of a hole in the floor of the desert and inflates to become Tom’s obligatory silver movie-star trailer. (Sorry: no photo available. By the way, this is also where we see all that is left of 18thC London in this production: Tom in a period frock coat, in make-up outside his trailer, with a powder wig on a nearby mannequin.)
In a perfect piece of reconceptualization, where Auden has Nick tempt Tom later in the libretto with a machine that turns stones into bread, Lepage has Nick use a television set, where the fraudulent transformation of uselessness into wholesomeness resonates convincingly, especially when we see a series of faux commercials with a Tom-like little boy advertising the virtues of the bread. The gambling scene takes place on what is apparently the rooftop of an abandoned casino in the desert; there is a terrific pool scene; and the madhouse scene at moments approaches the frightfulness of Brook’s Marat/Sade.
For all that, I have to admit to not being much more won over by Stravinsky’s music for this opera than I was when I listened to a recording of it a few years ago. I like some of Stravinsky’s other work very much, but it seems to me that he didn’t find a form of music which was as witty, brisk, dynamic and (if I may) as unheimlich as Auden’s inventions for the libretto. And, where the music in an opera is not everything one would have it be for the story, there is not much that a director can do. There were times when I desperately wanted to pick up the pace, because Stravinsky himself, it seemed, was not keeping pace with the story by providing a commensurate range of musical ideas and rhythms. It’s not that I think it is BAD music; it’s just that, for Stravinsky to match what Auden (and Lepage) had done, it would have to be on the level of his Rites of Spring or the Firebird Suite.
One other complaint I would make is a general one I have often made about opera: there is still a rather hidebound aesthetic, shared by both some of the performers and some of the audience members, which holds that beauty of tone is more important than drama or clarity or theatrical style. In other words, although this opera was in English, and I could understand most of the singers perfectly well, I could not understand the soprano (Laura Claycomb as Anne) at all and instead I read the French surtitles. This was seemingly because she was determined to perform the role not only as it if were some traditional melodic, lyrical part, straight out at the audience, without any sense of irony, but also because she felt that what the character was saying was irrelevant next to the question of how beautifully she sang it. And some in the audience clearly agreed, because the applause whore (I’m sorry, but there it is), was given her due. Dagmar Peckova, as Baba the Bearded Lady, had a much stronger grip on the nature of her role (and of the opera, and of Lepage’s wishes for the production), but again, could have used a little more clarity of tone and diction; but at least she was trying to be a part of a whole art form, rather than just being in it for her own exquisiteness. This is not just a problem in Brussels, of course, but is a battle that is being waged in opera everywhere. I suppose the problem with any revolutionary overthrow of the reactionary tastes is that many of those who buy subscriptions would not have it any other way. But I hope it is not unfair to question the honesty of their aesthetic preferences. The man next to me was, in the third act, fidgeting like a bored four-year-old (I was hard-pressed not to hiss at him: “sit still! It’s almost over”). But all the same, he shouted his “bravo” to the soprano (and if we’re going to get picky, it should have been “brava” anyway). Would he have done so, if, instead of congratulating himself for being a cultured man and paying 100 euros for a ticket to hear a sublime soprano notwithstanding his secret boredom, he instead expected an engaging and thrilling show and refused to inform his experience with ritual snobbery? I doubt it.