A Rake’s Progress for the Television Age at Theater an der Wien

Theater-an-der-Wien-logoIn his 1964 essay for the Cambridge Opera Handbooks’ Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress, the composer stated his opinion about the staging of this opera very plainly: “Rake’s Progress is simple to perform musically, but difficult to realize on the stage.” Stravinsky went on to explain that he thought a staging will be successful “if the stage director has not lost sight of the opera’s ‘moral fable’ proposition by over-playing the realism of ‘the Rakewell story.’” In Theater an der Wien’s staging of The Rake’s Progress, 16-26 September 2013 in Vienna, the portrayal of the Rakewell story went beyond realism to the über-authenticity of reality television. This staging was captivating in the way that only modern, American TV can be: the hero’s fall is inevitable, and we know that it’s been scripted by the producers. But it’s impossible to look away. It’s delicious to watch the rake indulge in things we deem ourselves too moral to permit, and then to enjoy his downfall with equal relish. W.H Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto fit frighteningly well into this new context, providing all of the characters we expect in such a story. Stravinsky’s score sometimes felt out of place in this staging, a little too beautiful and complex next to such grinding and crass fame-whoring.

Anna Prohaska (Anne Truelove) & Toby Spence (Tom Rakewell) (photo credit: © Herwig Prammer)

Anna Prohaska (Anne Truelove) & Toby Spence (Tom Rakewell)
(photo credit: © Herwig Prammer)

Set in Vienna in 2013, the scene opened on our hero, Tom Rakewell, crashing on a mattress on the floor of a filthy, empty room, under a fluorescent light, smoking a joint with his girlfriend. The television in the room showed a celebrity gossip program. The costuming came straight out of a suburban mall, all fake-acid-washed jeans and tight shirts. Nick Shadow, the devil himself masquerading as a valet, wore a cheap suit and had greasy, long hair.

Throughout the opera, ever-present television sets showed many live-feeds of the action as it happened on stage. This device was particularly effective in the scene set at Mother Goose’s brothel. Here, everyone on stage was completely naked (including the men) save for Shadow, who was filming the simulated sex on stage. Showing this and many other scenes through a television amped up the lewd, trashy feel of the staging, while simultaneously giving the audience a feeling of remove from the action.

Among many, many other clever details in the staging was the treatment of the character of Baba the Turk. In the libretto, Baba was a famous bearded lady from Saint Giles fair. She appeared here as an intersex person. This gave Anne Sophie von Otter as Baba leave to wag her penis around in front of the cameras, an opportunity she took with great flourish. By introducing her character first through tabloid television, before she appeared on stage, Baba became a person famous for being famous, and Tom’s desire to wed her consistent with his desire to keep his own star rising in the “entertainment” world.

Anne Sofie von Otter (Baba the Turk), Gerhard Siegel (Sellem) and the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus  (photo credit: © Herwig Prammer)

Anne Sofie von Otter (Baba the Turk), Gerhard Siegel (Sellem) and the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus
(photo credit: © Herwig Prammer)

This staging, so rich with commentary on modern society, distracted at times from the wind-instrument orgasm that is Stravinsky’s score. Which is a shame, given that the music was so well done. The ÖRF Radio Symphony Orchestra’s wind section was warm, rich and precise. Anna Prohaska as Anne Trulove sang a vivid “No word from Tom,” keeping her vibrato at a minimum but still filling the hall with crisp high notes that held none of the melodrama that this aria usually evokes. But it was hard to focus on the beauty of her voice, as she walked around stage picking up used condoms and empty champagne bottles, dodging a naked and hung-over Mother Goose. The other lead voices were also well cast: Toby Spence’s voice lent itself perfectly to the clueless innocence of Tom Rakewell, and Bo Skovhus growled out a creepy and slimy Nick Shadow. In many of their scenes, the staging left them more room to sing, though they were almost always competing with a TV screen for attention.

Though this staging was a brilliant and clever way to show the relevance of The Rake’s Progress in modern society, it failed to completely remove one uncomfortable aspect of showing any such morality tale on stage. There we were, a well-heeled Viennese society crowd, sitting on plush chairs while watching under-educated, poor characters flash their underwear at us. As an audience, what should we take away from such an opera? From a more traditional staging, one might leave certain of the dangers of idleness and envy, despising those who covet what they were not born to. This is a troublesome moral in itself, especially in an opera from the twentieth century. Putting this story through the lens of reality television did not remove the aspect of rich arts patrons tsk-tsking at the undeserving poor portrayed on stage. If anything, it heightened it: what kind of  uneducated wretches would watch such mindless trash on television, we thought. How desperate the show participants must be, to subject themselves to ritual humiliation in front of millions of viewers. They should have stayed at home, content with their current socio-economic standing, the audience murmured, as we walked down the marble staircases out of the theatre. This staging, for all of its diverting ingenuity, still allowed us to look down on the money grubbers of contemporary society, without offering any ideas as to what motivates people to view the acquisition of wealth as an aim unto itself.