At the first opportunity he abandons her. He leads a debauched life, marries someone else and ends up in the madhouse. Yet Anne Truelove keeps loving Tom Rakewell, the main character in The Rake’s Progress. On 1 February, Dutch National Opera will present its fourth production of Stravinsky’s opera, staged by Simon McBurney.
It’s a collaboration with Aix-en-Provence, where the opera was premièred in July 2017. The same vocal cast performs in Amsterdam, accompanied by the Dutch Chamber Orchestra under Ivor Bolton. The young American soprano Julia Bullock sings the role of Anne Truelove. Bullock: ‘Anne faces her emotions, learns from them and continues. She is a very mature woman.’
Reading the libretto of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman I can’t help asking myself what on earth Anne sees in the weakling Tom. Julia Bullock laughs exuberantly at my bewilderment, but then carefully chooses her words. ‘Tom is an intelligent, ambitious and warm person; Anne is attracted by his energy, his liveliness. The opening scene at once offers various dynamics, but most important is the dynamics between Tom and Anne. They express their mutual love. And whatever this implies, it must be presented as sincere and real’.
Tom is an unfaithful rake, who is seduced by Nick Shadow to lead a debauched life in London. Yet Bullock abstains from condemning him outright. ‘He is someone with great ambitions, getting the chance to realise them. If you get every conceivable possibility handed to you on a silver platter, this brings along quite a lot of temptations. This applies to everyone, but some can handle this better than others. Tom is less stable and self-confident than Anne, though I do not believe she is trying to save him.’
‘I consider it important to convey that their love relationship really goes deep, that their concern for each other is sincere. Despite the unholy path he follows, she remains faithful to him.’ Anne’s behaviour set Bullock thinking about her own life: ‘I recently got engaged myself. If Christian were going through a difficult time, or even if we were splitting up, I would still like to be there for him.’
The soprano finds a new challenge in every piece: ‘I learn from each composer and from any character I perform. Anne is a remarkable person. She copes with the many difficult personalities and situations that come her way. Moreover, she has the gift of constantly growing her compassion and love. Anne is certainly not a silly girl, but a mature and thoughtful human being.’
Once more Bullock’s contagious laugh fills the room: ‘It’s refreshing to have to train that muscle in myself while working on this piece. The more so because of the intimate way director Simon McBurney works. This sometimes leads to tensions, but there is great mutual respect. Perhaps he goes home and gets really furious at his performers, but during rehearsals he is very patient. I regularly cry out: this is not going to work! Yet we always find a solution. Simon was a performer himself and acquaints you step by step with the character you are interpreting.’
‘As for Anne, of course she has intense and also negative feelings. Sometimes she is extremely angry, bitter or deeply sad. Simon helps me to shape all these layers emotionally, psychologically and physically. He strives for authenticity, it must never be artificial. Thus I learn to internalize my character and make contact with the Anne inside me. She is able to admit strong emotions; she learns from them and goes on. Tom, on the other hand, carries circumstance after circumstance with him. I think that’s also what is haunting him and ultimately driving him mad. If you can’t let go of a trauma, you will disassociate from yourself, because it becomes too hard to bear.’
Tom imagines being Adonis and ends up in the madhouse. Anne plays along with this delusion at first and pretends to be Venus, but leaves him alone in the end. Is she choosing for herself after all? Bullock: ‘You could say that, but what can she do really? No matter how important her presence is to Tom, in his new world Anne remains peripheral. She may have been tempted to be part of their love story again, but he is in a place where she just cannot follow him. Once again, it testifies to her adulthood that she acknowledges this.’
But what development does Tom make? After all, the title of the opera is The Rake’s Progress. ‘You should ask Paul Appleby, who sings his role,’ says Bullock, thoughtfully raking her fingers through her curls. ‘For me, his progress lies in a form of self-realisation. Tom reaches a point where he sees who he was, what he wanted to achieve and where he ended up landing.’
‘He wanted to take up an elevated position throughout his life, hence the fantasy of the gods. But that’s not the sort of place a human being can function within, at least not permanently. We can have moments of ecstasy, but Tom wanted to always be in this heightened reality, this heightened world. Towards the end he increasingly reaches that insight. He is not totally lost, but accepts the reality of his life. You hear this in the music, which ends calm and simple. Tom has finally found his peace, he is not wrestling anymore.’
Info & tickets
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Here’s a registration of the production in Aix