Here was an eye-catching prospect. A young composer and an author of high repute come together to write a new opera based on a series of engravings by Hogarth. Was the plan to create a companion piece to Stravinsky’s Hogarth-based opera, The Rake’s Progress? Would it also be a neo-classical confection, a quick-moving, sharp-witted satire for the 21st century?
A Harlot’s Progress – music by Iain Bell, words by Peter Ackroyd – had its premiere at the Theater an der Wien on Sunday, and within minutes of curtain-up it was clear the answers would be “no”, “no” and “no”. Despite the presence of coloratura soprano Diana Damrau as the harlot in question, this is a thoroughly modern opera, which loses no time in plunging into doom and gloom.
The plot follows Hogarth frame by frame. Ackroyd has provided a libretto steeped in 18th-century London filth and mire, tracing the inevitable downfall of Moll Hackabout (a “little chicken … to be split on the spit”) in language a lot snappier than Auden and Kallman provided for Stravinsky – even if only 20 per cent of it could be heard here. Bell’s music does not have as much character. Cast in a conventional modern idiom, it is all slow-moving, gloomy, low sonorities from the start. In musical terms this harlot does not have far to progress. Though Bell is adept at creating a generalised mood of decay and despair, he never pins down any specific sense of place (where is the rude hustle and bustle of Ackroyd’s London?) or character (other fallen women, such as Massenet’s Manon and Berg’s Lulu, come to life much more vividly).
Mikko Franck is the attentive conductor. The production by Jens-Daniel Herzog is simple and striking. Tara Erraught and Nathan Gunn sing strongly as Kitty and James Dalton, and Marie McLaughlin puts in a magnetic performance as the ghastly Mother Needham. But it is left to Diana Damrau to raise the evening to a higher level. Bell has wisely made the climax of his opera a huge solo scene for Moll, part cradle song, part mad scene, and Damrau turns it into a harrowing musical and dramatic showpiece. The opera, if not the harlot herself, does progress to something really worthwhile in the end.