Hannigan Takes Risks with “The Rake’s Progress”

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STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress / William Morgan, ten (Tom Rakewell); Aphrodite Patoulidou, sop (Anne Trulove); John Taylor Ward, bar (Nick Shadow); Kate Howden, mezzo (Baba the Turk); Erik Rosenius, bs-bar (Mr. Trulove/Mother Goose); Ziad Nehme, ten (Sellem); Gothenberg Symphony Orch.; Barbara Hannigan, cond / Bonus disc: “Taking Risks,” documentary on auditions, casting & rehearsals / Accentus DVD ACC20420

The multi-talented and eccentric soprano Barbara Hannigan, who has already succeeded in conducting orchestras in instrumental music, here conducts her first complete opera performance. Although the “production” was staged by Linus Fellbom, it is technically not a full staging but a sort of mini-production. The singers act and cavort, kind of in costume, in a relatively circumspect space in front of the orchestra and conductor, both of which are onstage and visible throughout the performance behind them. I’m not sure if this was because Gothenburg doesn’t have a sunken orchestra pit like most opera houses do or if this was to give Hannigan and her conducting more public visibility, but from my perspective as a viewer the combination was a bit odd. Either you do a concert performance in which none of the singers act or wear costumes or you put it on a regular opera stage with the orchestra in the pit.

So, after sampling the performance DVD to make sure that all the singers could really sing (they can), I watched the bonus DVD, “Taking Risks,” first. This disc runs even longer than the performance, 58:13 compared to 49:50. Surprisingly, it begins not with anything from The Rake’s Progress but with a film clip of Hannigan singing and conducting a performance of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, one of her specialties. In this clip she is not dressed like a slutty schoolgirl, as she was in her performance with Sir Simon Rattle, but sort of like a Goth girl, wearing a dark black wig cut in a bobbed style and a black leather full-length coat, but when she takes the coat off she is wearing a short, revealing leather outfit that just barely covers her from bustline to her, well, her naughty bits as John Cleese is wont to say. In a voice-over, Hannigan says that she probably has “ten good years left as a singer,” and so she is doing more and more as a singer-conductor, after which she will just be a conductor. We then see and hear her warming up her voice, which she does with her mouth closed, humming the notes. (Interestingly, she pronounces the title of this opera as “The rake’s proh-gress” rather than “progress.”) She then explains that only one of the singers she chose for this production had sung their role before and that she didn’t know any of them beforehand. Risk No. 1.

The first singer we see auditioning for Hannigan is a tenor, who auditions with a modern piece that takes his voice very high up in falsetto. He is obviously a first-rate musician and a good singer, but I found his voice, shall we say, a bit thin, one of those tenor voices that has no “bottom” to it. He is also one of those singers—unfortunately, all too prevalent today—who love to wave their arms in the air as they sing. Aside: if there is a singer reading this review, whatever your voice range, and you are an arm-waver, could you PUH-LEEZE explain to me how waving your arms like an overwrought conductor while singing helps either your voice or your expression? I’m asking because I saw a good dozen or so of the greatest singers who ever lived, among them Dick Tucker, Placido Domingo, Magda Olivero, Licia Albanese, Jon Vickers, Gabriel Bacquier, Birgit Nilsson, Jan de Gaetani, Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jessye Norman, and not one of them waved their hands or arms in the air as they sang. Not one. Yes, a few of them had their own idiosyncracies—Albanese wrung her hands in front of her to show emotion, both Vickers and Fischer-Dieskau did a slow strut as they sang, and Domingo had the habit, when holding a high note, of turning his head slowly from side to side to that every corner of the opera house could get a few seconds of hearing it up close because his voice was very “directional,” meaning that it came out of his mouth in a straight line and did not reverberate in the hall as Tucker’s and Vickers’ did—but not one of them waved their hands or arms in the air as they sang. So yeah, I really do want to know.

Hannigan explains that the reason she auditioned a ton of young, unknown singers for the opera was that all of her favorite colleagues weren’t free. But Gothenburg was open to the idea of her hiring unknown names, so she auditioned 125 singers and “held a kind of mini-mentoring session” with each of them  so that they had “something to take away.” Interestingly, we see and hear several of the sopranos who auditioned for the role of Anne Trulove, and all of them had good voices—in fact, some had prettier timbres and/or clearer diction than Aphrodite Patoulidou, the singer she chose, although Patoulidou also has a fine voice. (Footnote: almost none of the sopranos waved their hands/arms in the air.)

The “equilibrium workshops” are evidently important to Hannigan, and the young singers also seemed to benefit from them, but to me it seemed like Group Coddling. They blow up balloons and then have to share their feelings about doing so: were they jealous that others blew their balloons up bigger or had an easier time tying knots in them? Spare me. The tenor Hannigan finally chose for Tom, William Morgan, also has a somewhat thin, high voice with no richness in it, but she felt that he somehow personified the character better than the others.

In rehearsal, Hannigan told the orchestra that this was her first opera. She felt it was important to “share” her vulnerability with them. The singers also have to “process” information and “care.” Jeezis Christmas, lady, you’re doing a JOB. If you know the score, and you should, inside and out, you go out front and assert your authority as conductor of the whole shebang. You don’t need to share or process anything except Stravinsky’s music. Do you think that when 19-year-old Arturo Toscanini was pulled out of his dressing room to take over the orchestra at a second’s notice and conduct a full performance of Aida that he had time to “share” or “process” anything? And yes, of course he was frightened. He had never even conducted a rehearsal, let alone a performance, in public before. It took him two whole scenes for his heart to stop beating like a jackhammer and, in his own words, “really conduct,” but he did it. And he didn’t cry or share his vulnerability with the orchestra or the audience.

Interestingly, there is no mention in the “Taking Risks” DVD about director Linus Fellborn’s “feelings,” even though he, too, was taking risks because this was the first time he had directed a performance of an opera, let alone The Rake’s Progress, of which he knew only a couple of arias. In the booklet, however, he is interviewed at some length. He is correct when he says it is “an ingenious mirroring of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.” He is also correct in that the location and sets can be updated; I have a marvelous DVD in which the whole production is set in Las Vegas of the 1950s. His “staging” is minimalist (no real sets to speak of, just some backdrops and lighting) and don’t do the opera much harm, but to me it didn’t make it attractive, either.

From a strictly aural perspective, Hannigan’s performance is excellent: crisp and clean, yet with a human touch that I liked very much. It reminded me of Stravinsky’s own early (1953) recording with Hilde Güden and Eugene Conley, except that for me John Taylor Ward was a much more interesting Nick Shadow than Mack Harrell (although William Shimell, the Nick of my Las Vegas Rake’s Progress, is the best I’ve ever seen or heard). Hannigan waves both arms together, in rhythm with the music, though she also has a baton in her right hand which is apparently only for show—but then, you must remember that she’s used to conducting with her back to the orchestra while singing the music she’s conducting, so she has adopted this unorthodox technique. She also smiles a lot and frequently bends over the score and makes faces. But heck, most of the orchestra is also probably caring and sharing their feelings, too, so it all comes together.

My principal complaint, from a visual perspective, was with tenor Morgan whose propensity for moving too much, bending forward most of the time and waving his arms as he sings really got on my nerves, early and often. You’re not an acrobat, Bill. It’s really OK if you stand still when you sing. No one is going to punish you or not hire you because of your inability to move around like a puppet on a string. They want to hear you SING, not bug your eyes and wave your arms. (Public Service Announcement to male opera singers: I’ve had it up to my hairline with this “scruffy-half-shaven” look. It doesn’t make you look cute. It makes you look like a slob. Either grow your beard & moustache out or shave. Thank you.)

But the most disturbing aspect of the production was Hannigan’s choice to use the baritone singing Mr. Trulove, to dress in a corset and sing the role of Mother Goose in a ghastly falsetto. WHY?? Youth Wants to Know! Stravinsky very clearly designated this as a mezzo role. Having a guy with a moustache singing it in drag is ridiculous. She’s the madam of a brothel, not a drag queen, and the scene where Mother Goose forcibly kisses Tom became a farce in this new conception of the role. As casting director, this was clearly Hannigan’s idea and not that of Fellbom. She could easily have had Kate Howden, who sings Baba the Turk, perform this role as well since those two characters never appear together in the opera. Mind you, I don’t object to homosexuality in an opera if it fits; if I did, I’d never think Britten’s Death in Venice a great opera, but Mother Goose is simply not a gay character, thus this part of the production is nonsensical, akin to casting a eunuch as Kundry when she seduces Parsifal. As a matter of fact, it is Baba the Turk who is an androgynous and subtly homoerotic figure, a woman with a beard and moustache.

What I particularly liked about the performance, as I did in the Las Vegas Rake, was the performance of the Anne Trulove. Patoulidou’s voice is not quite as honeyed in tone as that of Laura Claycomb, but both conveyed utter sincerity and concern for Tom in their portrayals of the role, and for a Greek soprano who speaks the language with an accent, Patoulidou’s English diction is really quite good. I’ve heard many an American and British soprano who could take lessons from her in this respect. Also, Hannigan’s conducting of this aria was absolutely superb, with Stravinsky’s crisp rhythms practically bouncing off the ceiling. In his Act II aria, Morgan’s voice became very tight and was painful to hear. And again, lots of arm-waving and face-making.

When we first see Baba, her face is completely covered by a long veil, which she only removes during the ensuing choral scene. She has a beard but no moustache. Kate Howden, who sings the part, has a fine mezzo voice but, although she goes to great pains to over-enunciate the final syllables of her words, I couldn’t understand a single one of them except for her final line in Act III, “The next time you see Baba / You shall pay!.” Was she perhaps singing in Turkish? Unfortunately, at this point in Act II my review copy of the DVD started to stick, meaning that both audio and video stopped and started at whim. I got to hear a bit of the ensuing Baba-Tom scene, but nothing more would play beyond that point in Act II. I had to re-insert the DVD once more and start at the beginning of Act II, which played fine. Our Sellem, Ziad Nehme, is quite good vocally although he, too, moves around too much. I guess St. Vitus’ Dance is going around the tenor community.

To recap: a very well-conducted performance with, in my view, four emerging stars in the making, those being Patoulidou, Ward, Rosenius and even Howden if she learns to sing clearer English. You may like Morgan’s tight, dry tenor voice more than I did, but to my ears he’s nothing more than a decent comprimario who moves around and makes too many faces.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Hannigan Takes Risks with “The Rake’s Progress”

  1. Mother Goose is an eponymous character in British pantomime. As the ‘dame’ she was traditionally played by a man, and the ‘principal boy’ (eg, Prince Charming in ‘Cinderella’) was acted by a woman. The dame is the ‘big rôle’ in a pantomime, carrying the show, and required to improvise and interact with the audience – some actors have made careers of playing dames every Christmas.
    To a Brit, Stravinsky’s female Mother Goose seems odd.

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    • Thanks for the info, but I’m not alone in calling her out for this. Regardless of what “Mother Goose” is in British pantomime, Stravinsky wrote the role for a mezzo, and the overly grotesque presentation of the character in this video just looks very out of place. I looked at the Hogarth artwork for “The Orgy,” and could not tell from that whether or not Mother Goose was a man – it didn’t appear so to me.

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