Stravinsky may not have been the molten core of Hollywood's golden age - indeed he never even wrote for the movies - but he was at least resident in '50's Los Angeles when he composed The Rake's Progress.
That's the jump-off for Robert Lepage's production, which makes Nick Shadow a diabolical director who lures Tom Rakewell down the movie star path, then demands his soul in payment. Each scene is modelled on an iconic movie image - the opener sees Rakewell as James Dean in the oilfields of Giant, Mother Goose's brothel is Destry Rides Again, the swimming pool of Sunset Boulevard is Rakewell's salon, and Bedlam becomes the mad house of The Snake Pit.
It's neat, it's fresh, it moulds readily to the plot and the production photos look terrific. The appropriation of classic visual imagery neatly mirrors the extensive musical borrowings in Stravinsky's score. Indeed the use of images is in itself a nod to the genesis of the opera in Hogarth's print series The Rake's Progress. How very clever. Aesthetes, intellectuals, popcorn munchers and jaded operagoers, there's something there for everyone. So why doesn't it work?
Each scene is visually splendid but painfully static. It takes more than iconic images to make a great movie, and the same goes for opera.
Unlike Hogarth's Rake's Progress sketches, the images Lepage has selected are not exactly busting with narrative content. Translating two dimensions into three, the minimal scenery often leaves acres of stage bare, as crudely exposed by the prison camp lighting. It's no surprise that the most truthful and engaging scene, the one set in the mad house, is the busiest one.
And some of the most stunning ideas - a bed that sucked Tom and Mother Goose down into the floor, a full size inflatable trailer that burst forth from the ground - were just badly timed, and overwhelmed the music instead of supporting it. I don't mind a joke - but it's got to be in the right place.
Amidst all the unadulterated Americana, it was odd to hear everyone singing in a cultivated English accent, but the quaint anglicisms of Auden and Kallmann's libretto don't really permit anything else. (Kudos to the North American cast members for getting it spot-on though.)
Do they wear socks with sandals in Hell? Probably. John Relyea's Nick Shadow paired these with a hideous baldy wig and glasses perched on top of his head, in a Stravinsky lookalike style that inevitably didn't quite come off >>>>>
It was a crime against hawtness that combined with a physically understated performance left Relyea's blackstrap molasses voice to provide devilish seductiveness and charisma.
I couldn't fault Charles Castronovo's intelligently thought-out and well-sung Tom Rakewell. But I couldn't really warm to his portrayal either, at least until the touching vulnerability of his final mad house scene.
She sang brightly, if not always quite in tune, and enunciated very clearly by soprano standards. It was still useful to have the surtitles though - the ROH chorus, usually so solid, were scrappy and weary-sounding, often drifting away from the score too.
Patricia Bardon's hysterical Baba the Turk and Kathleen Wilkinson's saucy Mother Goose were strongly characterised. They usefully raised the production's energy levels, compensating for the generally torpid conducting of Thomas Ades.
He achieved something few conductors manage, in bringing a greater humanity and delicacy to this opera, so often seen as chilly and unyielding. Many passages appeared with an eye-opening clarity and transparency.
But in doing so he neutered its wit and bite, and apart from the graveyard scene, any real sense of drama. On balance, I'd have preferred cold and heartless - The Rake's Progress is after all the allegorical triumph of stupidity over evil, dressed up in a love story, not the other way round.