Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

The programme book, an imitation of Life magazine, sets the tone. Robert Lepage’s new production transposes Hogarth’s story to America in the 1950s when Stravinsky and librettists Auden and Kalman wrote the work. Tom is James Dean and Trulove is Rock Hudson as in the film Giant. The fleshpot is Hollywood and the satire is directed at vacuous TV culture.

Brussels has first stab at an expensive staging shared with Lyons, Madrid, San Francisco and Covent Garden, but it is not the best of launches. Lepage’s visual imagination works its magic from time to time – Tom and Mother Goose sucked down into a heart-shaped couch, Tom’s inflatable trailer, and Anne doggedly steering her red sports car through terrible weather – but the wit could have as easily come from Nicholas Hytner or Laurent Pelly.

And updating the action to Hollywood is hardly pioneering stuff, more a facile source of film references. As Tom pulls on his cowboy boots singing about the “Cyprian queen (translating) our mortal scene” before donning his Stetson, you start to question this emigration from the precious 18th-century original setting.

But the real problem is a mysterious, frustrating imbalance between stage and pit. The Rake is much more than a neo-classical pastiche but it relies on singers shining in set arias and projecting a rather wordy libretto. This implies boxing the cast in, whereas Lepage’s sets are wide open at the back and the sides. We can hear the singers in recitatives but orchestral tutti frequently turn into lip reading sessions as unsubtle woodwind, particularly a piercing oboe to wake the dead, chug on mechanically, untamed by Kazushi Ono’s rather flat conducting.

The voices often sound as miniature as the doll’s house Anne bids farewell to, but Andrew Kennedy’s Tom is still magically phrased and William Shimmell’s tired baritone manages to spit out Nick Shadow’s threats in the graveyard scene. Laura Claycomb’s Anne stays enigmatically faint and Dagmar Peckova’s Baba makes little vocal impact.

Things may improve in another theatre but not enough, I suspect, to unseat the 1975 Cox/Hockney staging for Glyndebourne as supreme benchmark.

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