• Miles Hedley

A JOURNEY THROUGH THE RAKE’S PROGRESS Blackheath Halls Opera


The annual Blackheath Halls Opera is always a highlight of the cultural year in south-east London and it’s also a favourite with readers of this blog – our review of last year’s sold-out production of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène has been read by more people than any other we’ve ever posted.

But hopes of an even more successful opera in 2020 were scuppered by the Covid-19 lockdown, which forced the cancellation of the live summer run and left scores of community singers, musicians and stage crews as well as thousands of music-lovers feeling devastated.

It’s to the eternal credit of producer Rose Ballantyne, director James Hurley and musical director Christopher Stark that they decided instead to make an opera film to be shown on social media this year. And the result, A Journey Through The Rake’s Progress, is an artistic masterclass.

It’s a 40-minute distillation of Igor Stravinsky’s three-act opera inspired by artist William Hogarth’s brilliant satirical series The Rake’s Progress and Hurley uses its whip-smart libretto by WH Auden and Chester Kallman to great effect to bring it to glorious life on screen.

He cleverly and wittily mixes old and new to conjure an atmosphere of timelessness, combining juddery 1980s VHS cassette images with a 2020 Zoom multi-screen format to show us the incumbents of an 18th century brothel in all their grotesque glory, shooting rural scenes in saturated primary colours reminiscent of 1950s Hollywood to contrast with the murky, muddy tones of London low life and even giving us an animated vision of a steampunked machine to turn rocks into bread. Every frame of the production, designed by Elliott Squire, smashes the fourth wall and gives the piece a dazzling immediacy as it heads inexorably towards the rake’s Faustian comeuppance.

Ultimately, though, it’s the music that matters most in any film of an opera and Chris Stark has done a wonderful job bringing together the singers and orchestra to perform remotely.

As ever, the amateurs of the Blackheath Halls Chorus, the Blackheath Halls Orchestra and the Royal Greenwich and Blackheath Halls Youth Choir provide the solid foundation that helps make this production sparkle and inspires the professional members of the cast to new heights.

Nicky Spence as the rake and Francesca Cheijina as his jilted fiancée are terrific and there are great turns by Kitty Whately as bearded lady Baba The Turk (what a moustache!), James Way as slimy Zoom auctioneer Sellem and Carolyn Williamson as seductive brothel-keeper Mother Goose. And Ashley Riches as Mephistophelean menace Nick Shadow is simply sensational.

It’s a great film. And by way of consolation for having no in-the-flesh community opera this year, you can watch it again as often as you want on the Blackheath Halls YouTube channel. That said, I can’t wait for another live production, so fingers crossed for next year.

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