Igor Stravinsky. The Rake's Progress. DVD. Glyndebourne Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra / Bernard Haitink. Recorded live at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 1975. With Felicity Lott, Leo Goeke, Richard Van Allan, Samuel Ramey, Rosalind Elias, Nuala Willis, John Fryatt, Thomas Lawlor. Leipzig, Germany: Arthaus Musik, 2005. 101 093. $19.99.
When The Rake's Progress premiered in Venice, many of the critics appreciated its craftsmanship but questioned its relevance (for some representative responses, see Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky, The second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971 [New York: Oxford University Press, 2006], 271). Younger composers and audiences of twentieth-century music wanted to divest themselves of all ties with the past in the desperate turbulence following the end of World War II, and opera generally-this opera in particular-could hardly have suggested the renewal by renunciation that so many wished for. Indeed, the Rake seemed dangerously to flaunt convention both musical and dramaturgical; the thrill of Anne Truelove's high C at the end of "I Go to Him," for some, suggests only a rehearsal of a familiar gesture from the past, shorn of whatever ironic distance that neoclassicism and its various dialects could have conferred upon it when the style was new. But the sensibilities of the present-fragmentary and contested, even contradictory, to be sure-have revivified the humanistic impulse that inhabits the Rake at every turn, as evidenced by any number of productions and recordings of the opera.
This well-known production, first broadcast on television in 1978, has been released twice before on VHS. David Hockney's acclaimed design-flat, geometric, at turns coolly and garishly colorful, and yet rich with subtle allusion-constitutes, perhaps, the production's most significant aspect. Its subtle reference to Hogarth's original prints makes it an admirable complement to Stravinsky's music, with all its various references to the operatic tradition -not only Handel and Mozart, but also more subtly the rhythmic accompanimental style of Verdi and others.
John Cox's direction, and the singers' execution of it, makes no pretense to modernizing or casting in an ironic light the psychology of the characters and their situations. Perhaps the action is a little too naturalistic. There's very little if any acting in this production that would be out of place in, say, Don Giovanni. Still, better to have a straightforward and effective dramatic treatment of the tale-one that fulfills an important function as a point of reference or serves a useful purpose in classroom teaching-than to endure a production whose modern or postmodern distortions obscure the original's dramaturgy to the point of nonexistence. …