Having watched quite a few opera recordings from the 70s and 80s recently I can well see why David Hockney’s designs for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne were such a big deal back in the day. They look they were designed by an artist rather than being lifted from an expensive department store furniture catalogue. And, of course, they are still in use. Beyond the design issues, this has a kind of transitional feel as a production. Occasionally some acting breaks out and quite imaginative use is made of the chorus but there is a lot of “park and bark”; perhaps somewhat inevitable on the old, small Glyndebourne stage but very noticeable. It’s hard not to feel that director John Cox could have done a lot more with a neat staging and a talented cast.
Among the singers the stand out is Sam Ramey as Nick Shadow. His singing is rock solid, if perhaps consistently a bit loud, and he’s one of the better actors successfully navigaring the dry, sly humour of Kalman and Auden’s libretto. A very young Felicity Lott sings Ann Trulove. Some of her singing is lovely and sometimes her upper register sounds a bit squally. I can’t tell if this is her or an artefact of the sound (see below). It’s a good performance overall. Leo Goeke’s Tom gets off to a shaky start but improves over time. In the opening scene his lines are broken up in a bizarrely unidiomatic way but he does fix things and he is quite touching in the graveyard and mad house scenes. Rosalind Elias gives a solidly sung Baba the Turk and is perhaps the best actor of the lot too. The chorus puts in a super performance in both the singing and acting departments. The orchestra (LPO under Bernard Haitink) seems OK but it’s hard to hear it a lot of the time.
So now we get to the real limitations of this disc. It’s based on a TV broadcast by Southern Television (and when was the last time you saw an opera broadcast on a free to air commercial channel?) and it shows all the limitations of 1975 technology and adds some of its own. The 4:3 picture is adequate most of the time but the strong horizontal lines in Hockney’s design are entirely too much, reducing the background at times to a flickering mess. The PCM stereo sound too is not great. The voices are balanced a long way forward pretty much obliterating the orchestra. It also doesn’t do any favours at all to Felicity Lott’s high notes. The video direction by Dave Heather is typical of TV broadcasts of the era and certainly isn’t optimal for watching on a large screen. There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles but no extras.
I really like this staging. It would be really good to see Opus Arte release a new recording to their usual high technical standards. This recording is worth seeing but needs to be treated as “historic”.
ETA: Opus Arte have released a recording of the 2010 revival and it’s very good.