Iain Bell - A Harlot's Progress
Theater an der Wien, Vienna 2013
Mikko Franck, Jens-Daniel Herzog, Diana Damrau, Marie McLaughlin, Tara Erraught, Christopher Gillett, Nathan Gunn, Nicolas Testé
Theater an der Wien - Live Internet Streaming, 24 October 2013
Much in the same way that William Hogarth's prints lend a natural structure for Stravinsky to follow in his opera of The Rake's Progress, so too do the six engravings that make up the satirical morality tale of its companion piece provide a strong framework for A Harlot's Progress. Premiered in 2013 at the Theater an der Wien, British composer Iain Bell effectively fleshes out the six tableaux of A Harlot's Progress in music and drama in his first opera work. Even with the expertise and authenticity of a libretto noted London historian and author Peter Ackroyd, the work however never really brings any deeper sense of meaning, purpose or indeed humanity to Hogarth's sharp-edged satire.
The six scenes of Hogarth's 1732 engraving sequence for A Harlot's Progress could be described as follows: 1. Moll Arrives in London; 2. Moll is the Mistress of a Wealthy Gentleman; 3. Moll becomes a Common Prostitute; 4. Moll beats Hemp in Prison; 5. Moll is dying of Syphilis; 6. Moll's Wake. As each engraving of A Harlot's Progress represents a sequential stage in its morality tale, Bell's opera follows the same "progression", although Moll Hackabout's story is evidently and intentionally less a progress than a steady decline.
From the moment the young innocent country girl arrives at the Cheapside market in London "to find her fortune", the downward trajectory of her progress is indeed on the cards. Pressed into the service of Mother Needham, a procurer of young girls for wealthy gentlemen, Moll's fortunes decline steadily even as she lives a life of apparent luxury as the kept woman of Mr Lovelace. When the gentleman finds that Moll secretly has a lover of her own - the highwayman James Dalton - he throws her out onto the streets where she becomes a common prostitute, gets pregnant and dies ignominiously in a prison in a syphilitic condition.
No, A Harlot's Progress is not a barrel of laughs, but does Iain Bell's score and Peter Ackroyd's libretto really have to be so relentlessly miserable? Ackroyd's depiction of the period London is undoubtedly authentic in its character detail and language - which gets very colourful indeed - even if the work is consequently too wordy and descriptive. It certainly fleshes out the sequence of engravings into a credible narrative drama, and - like the image of Moll's hat and the presence of the baby in Hogarth's drawings, Ackroyd manages to use references that replicate the idea of the series being a cycle. That's all well and good, successfully bringing the series to life, but the opera doesn't advance further on Hogarth's ideas, nor bring anything new to the table.
As far as opera goes, the morality tale of the fallen woman story has by now been told many times in operas like La Traviata, Lulu, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and even most recently in Anna Nicole, and done in all the above with considerably more character, invention and colour. Even Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress recognised that there was humour, satire, irony and tragedy in Hogarth's work and found a way through neo-classical arrangements and pastiche to express the varied character of the tale. Neither Ackroyd nor Bell are able to match the wit and satire of Hogarth's prints, finding only misery, rutting, disease and death in it all.
The tone of Bell's score is consequently rather dark, drab and lacking in character. The overture sets the ominous tone for what is ahead, with rolling drums, fragmentary phrases, plucked notes and droning violin as bodies in rags crawl through the mist to the front of the stage. Individuals arise out of this seething mass, one stabbing and robbing another, others selling their wares, and the score picks out moments and characters with short phrases and serial runs. There's a full orchestra and a chorus employed here, but they are never used to bring any real dynamic to vary the tone or suggest any deeper level of individual character. Everyone in their own way is just miserable and out for themselves. Playing on the theme of Paul Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress', Hogarth's prints were a satire exposing the hypocrisy behind the society and its establishment figures in their exploitation of good people like Tom Rakewell and Moll Hackabout, but there's very little of that evident here.
The Theater an der Wien's staging is simple but effective enough for the purposes of connecting the scenes of the drama together. Although the costumes are approximate to the period (with some exceptions), the set wisely doesn't pile on the grimy misery of Georgian London. A stylised backdrop of a white wooden cage encloses the drama with panels that increasingly shut down sections on Moll's life as black ashes fall down upon the stage. Moving to contemporary opera is a considerable challenge for Diana Damrau and far from the Mozart roles she is most famous for, but she carries it off and gives a good performance. Tara Erraught's Kitty is also impressive, and Nathan Gunn is fine as James Dalton, but despite the attention paid to fleshing out the detail of the drama, there's not much for the characters to do here other than play out the misery of their existence.