When David Hockney’s designs for Stravinsky’s opera “The Rake’s Progress” were first seen, Gerald Ford was president of the U.S. and Harold Wilson prime minister of Britain.
Yet the revival now playing in repertory at Glyndebourne Opera looks fresh and contemporary.
It’s a remarkable feat of theatrical longevity. “In 1975, it would have been unthinkable to revive something so old,” Hockney says in an interview. “During the 1960s and early ‘70s, there were no revivals at all.” His designs, though, have become tightly linked to this, Stravinsky’s only full-length opera.
“The Rake’s Progress” was first performed at La Fenice, Venice, in 1951. The 1975 production at Glyndebourne -- a unique opera house attached to a country residence in rolling southern English countryside -- marked a crucial transition in Hockney’s life and work. It was the first of a series of successful operatic productions he designed over the following two decades, and provided an escape from a crisis in his work.
“I’d given up some paintings, abandoned them,” says Hockney, 73, seated on a bench in the garden at Glyndebourne. “It was a period when I was trying to figure out what to do. So when this came along it ended something for me and took me into something else.”
Hockney became a full, if belated, collaborator with Stravinsky himself and his librettists, the writers W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Together, the words, music, costumes and sets comprise a complete work of art. It adds up to a modernist take on the 18th century.
Initially, Auden and Kallman took their inspiration from an artist, William Hogarth, and his series of paintings and engravings of the same title dating from 1732-5. “This is an opera in which the source is visual,” says Hockney, “which is very unusual.”
He, too, decided to use Hogarth’s prints as his point of departure for the sets and costumes, so that everything the audience sees -- clothes, props, backdrops -- is created from a network of hatched lines. “I thought if you blew up the engravings, it would look like a 20th-century version of the 18th century.” That’s exactly what Stravinsky’s score is: a witty modernist meditation on the idiom of Mozart.
The result is a sequence of moving, three-dimensional works by Hockney, exactly -- as the director John Cox remarks in the program -- as if the spectator were “appreciating a series of prints.”
It’s also non-naturalistic, which helps the theatrical experience, explains Hockney, who’s wearing a dark, blue-striped suit and brown cap. “If you put a real tree on the stage,” he says, “the people in the front seats would be a lot closer to it than the people at the back. Whereas if you put treeness there, then you can be close at the front and the back. In the theater, you have to stylize a bit.”
The schematic quality of Hockney’s designs, their humor and dryness melds with the music and libretto. “I always thought it would work,” Hockney says, “because I was playing the music while working on the model, and to my eye and ear they seemed sympathetic. Rule No. 1 in the opera world is don’t distract from the music, work with it.”
Hockney’s increasing deafness ended his involvement with opera in the early 1990s. “Eventually, I felt I’d done enough,” he says. “It was wonderful, I loved it, but in the end I wasn’t hearing the music.” At the dress rehearsal last week, however, he seemed delighted to experience “The Rake’s Progress” all over again.
“The Rake’s Progress,” directed by John Cox and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, is in repertory at Glyndebourne through Aug. 29. The production is sponsored by Balli Group Plc. Information: http://www.glyndebourne.com.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)