This production of “The Rake’s Progress” marks Barbara Hannigan’s debut as an opera conductor and is a “labor of love" for her. Hannigan, who has sung the role of Anne Truelove many times, hand-picked the cast of soloists from over 350 applications from 39 countries, and subsequent auditions throughout Europe, as part of her mentoring initiative “Equilibrium.” In this unique and refined semi-staged production, director Linus Fellbom invites the audience to partake on a journey through space and time, from a distant future to the present, and back to 18th century London. The documentary "Taking Risks" follows all aspects of the production, starting with the very first auditions, the casting and rehearsal process, and culminating in the premiere in Gothenburg in December 2018.
The news here—and it deserves to be considered news—is that the celebrated soprano Barbara Hannigan switches roles to conduct The Rake’s Progress. Stravinsky’s Neoclassical opera is a difficult challenge (it defeated the composer when he led the ramshackle premiere in Venice in 1951), so I expected Hannigan to deliver at best a cautious, beat-bound reading. Such isn’t the case. She has mastered the score’s tricky rhythmic fluidity like a professional. There isn’t a single stretch of clumsy or lax conducting, and by any measure her performance is beyond reproach.
Hannigan herself being a superb singing actress, one expects the cast to live up to a high standard, and they do. Utterly compelling is the Shadow of John Taylor Ward, his heavy makeup and platinum blond hair vaguely epicene, his eyes dangerous even as his manner is suave. I like the fact that Ward is a baritone, like John Reardon on Stravinsky’s stereo recording (Sony), rather than the bass-baritones and basses that have become customary. A lighter voice permits clearer diction and less heavy-handed villainy. Ward’s acting is of Royal Shakespeare quality, and his assumption of the vocal part is impeccable.
Rake’s Progress has been blessed by a nearly ideal audio production in the Stravinsky stereo set; it is the only version where the cast is uniformly superb. I’ve heard the other audio sets, and all have their weak links. Among the several videos, I only know the classic David Hockney design from Glyndebourne in 1977, which uses the style of Hogarth’s original engravings in ingenious ways. The singing cast and Bernard Haitink’s conducting are both strong. Altogether, anyone who loves Stravinsky’s masterpiece must experience it.
If the Stravinsky and Haitink-led performances are indispensable, this new version is certainly intriguing in taking a modern slant on a period fable. Every element is compelling enough to deserve a strong recommendation, especially for those who want to celebrate Hannigan’s remarkable transformation into a conductor. I save for last my disappointment that the singers are miked too far away; all have excellent English diction but are deprived of immediate vocal presence.