The Rake's Progress - Frederick Jones, Lauren Young, Nazan Fikret (c) Richard Hubert Smith

English Touring Opera brought The Rake’s Progress and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut to Oxford Playhouse this week. In her programme notes, Director Polly Graham appropriately describes Stravinsky’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ as a ‘mad collage’.

It charts young Tom Rakewell’s journey from unexpected inheritance to ruin – an initially cynical tale which develops into one of redemption and humanity.

The Rake’s Progress – Jerome Knox (c) Richard Hubert Smith

New to the Rake myself, I swotted up on the synopsis beforehand: a deal with the Devil, marrying a bearded lady, a dream of a bread-machine even! It did indeed sound a bit crazed.

The Rake’s Progress – Lauren Young, Frederick Jones (c) Richard Hubert Smith

However, Graham and the whole English Touring Opera team should be praised for this production. On the one hand they manage to accentuate the mad moments of the storyline by including a heavy dose of kitsch: a whirling multi-coloured maypole, a Punch and Judy show, a life-size plastic horse, silver balloons and falling snow.


On the other, the direction allows the very human storyline to shine through: lazy, feckless Tom Rakewell (Frederick Jones) has everything (love) in the palm of his hand but throws it all away in his pursuit of riches.

The Rake’s Progress – Frederick Jones, Jerome Knox, Ensemble (c) Richard Hubert Smith

Meanwhile, loving, loyal Ann Trulove has her work cut out as she attempts to save her man from himself and the Devil, Nazan Fikret doing particular justice to her role. Aptly dressed as a crusader, she has to fight to save her man, and sings with particular grace and determination.

The Rake’s Progress – Nazan Fikret 2 (c) Richard Hubert Smith

Not that there are any weak links among the prominent roles or supporting cast, the performers and orchestra gelling wonderfully to ensure that the action and music zip along at a sprightly pace, while Satoko Doi-Luck’s unsettling harpsichord accompaniment lent an appropriate spookiness to Devil Nick Shadow’s role played so aptly by Jerome Knox.

The dark and gloomy final act contrasts well with the colourful zaniness of the proceeding two, the whole cast reappearing for an epilogue which contains the opera’s moral: ‘For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do,” – and the ‘mad collage’ is given a sane, sober but satisfying sense of order.

The Rake’s Progress – full cast (c) Richard Hubert Smith

English Touring Opera‘s production of The Rake’s Progress was everything I wanted from an opera; vibrant, well-paced, accessible, tuneful, thought-provoking and a bit mad. In short, it ticked all the boxes.

It was preceded by Puccini’s Manon Lescaut the night before and both are now on tour and coming to Leicester Curve, York Theatre Royal, The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Lighthouse, Poole, Hall For Cornwall, Truro, Exeter Northcott and Theatre Royal Bath.

Edward Bliss