A frequent pleasure of student opera productions is the chance to experience in live performance what the local pros rarely touch.
Igor Stravinsky ’s stage works, though a rich and vital legacy of the twentieth century avant garde, are not often mounted here. His one full length opera, The Rake’s Progress, with verse by W. H. Auden, is a scintillating, at times moving evocation of the spirit of Mozart.
Based on a sardonic series of paintings by English master William Hogarth, the story follows the fall and fall of Tom Rakewell. He is the title’s ‘rake’, a quaint old term for a moral degenerate, while ‘progress’ is an ironic reference to The Pilgrim’s Progress, that classic allegory of the growth of Christian virtue.
Starting off a simple farmhand, Tom inherits a fortune, wastes it on a life of stylish vice, marries a circus freak for money, yet still manages to wind up destitute and insane in Bedlam, the notorious asylum.
On this downward course Tom is abetted by a wily servant-advisor, Nick Shadow, who ultimately proves to be the Devil himself. By contrast, the never-heeded voice of salvation is personified in Tom’s yearning first sweetheart, Ann Trulove.
The designated setting is eighteenth-century London. I can’t say I’m wholly persuaded by the decision to update to the present, but there are moments where Anna Sweeney ’s production for the Queensland Conservatorium Opera School works winningly. The brothel scene is drolly designed, sort of Underbelly meets Kath and Kim, while the publicity craze over Baba the Turk, Tom’s bearded bride, skewers the increasing tawdriness of fame in the age of Kim Kardashian.
Musically, the Opera School’s performance is of a consistently high standard throughout, with much fine singing and orchestral playing under the energetic direction of Alexander Ingram. If occasionally one is distracted by eyes fixed on the conductor, one appreciates the multifaceted demands of opera performance all the more: singers have to move, act, keep track of complex music, and not just control but project the voice, so that it fills a large space without the help of the microphone. The commitment required to master this art is enormous.
There’s certainly no doubting the commitment here. Although some of the young voices are not yet fully ripe for their parts, there’s plenty of artistry to appreciate.
Joshua Rowe, Alasdair Kent and Christopher Clifford acquit themselves excellently in small parts, while Melissa Gregory is fully immersed in her cameo as the clapped-out brothel madam, Mother Goose. Mia Yaniw sings well and looks even better as a glamorous Baba: you’d think she’d just slinked in from Chicago. Samuel Johnson – not the dictionary man – has impressive vocal power as a (perhaps too obviously) fiendish Nick Shadow.
In the title role, Kang Wang as Tom displays a firm, seductive tenor, admirably controlled, though a little more variety of colour and emotion would have been welcome. Rebecca Cassidy warms up to a poignant Ann, genuinely grief-stricken when she finds Tom married. Her voice is lovely, with a plaintive tinge that avoids shrillness.
The vocal delights are rounded off by some excellent chorus work, although one could wish they had more to do dramatically in a staging that often tends to stasis. However, the first duty of opera performance has to be to the music, and for this alone the show is highly worth seeing.
You’ll have to be quick though, as tonight is the second last of its four performances.