If ever an opera belonged in Wilton’s Music Hall it is “The Rake’s Progress”. Stravinsky’s Hogarth-inspired work, in which the Devil draws lazy Tom Rakewell to the capital and the word “London” is rarely sung without a shudder of distrust, is right at home in this East End alleyway theatre, whose peeling layers of balcony stucco seem to reflect the way Stravinsky plundered previous centuries for his musical score.
It has been brought here by OperaGlass Works, the newest in a wave of tiny but ambitious outfits filling the gaps left by cut-down programming at the big opera companies. Corners have not been cut here. With a list of supporters that reads like a Who’s Who of the theatre world, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson have co-produced a staging that uses the limited space beautifully, moralising from under a delicately raised eyebrow.
As with the Royal Opera’s Tragédie de Carmen, which recently finished its run here, the stage is mainly made up of steps, and the orchestra – again, the Southbank Sinfonia – is at the back. But this time movement doesn’t seem restricted. The characters gamely shin down from balconies via ladders dotted around the stage that are the main component of Tom Piper’s set design. Once on the ground, they are up close to the audience, and every aside – from whichever side, good or evil – comes across with an immediacy that makes us feel complicit.
The Southbank Sinfonia is small – only one player to each string part – but stylish. The conductor is the baroque-music specialist Laurence Cummings, directing from the harpsichord and dressed in jacket and squishy velvet cap to look alarmingly like Handel. He paces things snappily and, as the evening progresses, increasingly gets in on the action.
As for the cast, it’s one you’d expect to find in a far more glamorous theatre. It’s led by Robert Murray, who brings an easy, confiding manner and an airy-sounding tenor to Tom. He’s matched by Jonathan Lemalu as a charismatic, imposing Nick Shadow, and Susanna Hurrell as a winsome Anne, scaling the heights of her florid music with an appealingly soft-grained soprano. Victoria Simmonds relishes Baba the Turk’s diva poses. Best of all, though, is the way that everyone on stage puts across WH Auden and Chester Kallman’s text with a care and directness that lets us relish every arch, ironic word.
At Wilton’s Music Hall, London, until 25 November.