A Harlot´s Progress


Sunday 13 October 2013
7 pm

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Over sixty years after the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, the young English composer Iain Bell takes William Hogarth’s other famous series of engravings A Harlot’s Progress (1732) as the inspiration for his commissioned work for the Theater an der Wien. The libretto is the work of the author Peter Ackroyd, best known to international readers for his historical novels and accounts of English history. The opera evokes Hogarth’s London, the bustle and noise of the streets and markets, but also the dark corners, the prison, prostitutes’ cheap lodgings, disease and death.

Young and naïve, Moll Hackabout arrives in London in search of a better life. She has barely alighted from the coach before she falls into the clutches of Needham, a procuress. Initially, Moll is kept by a wealthy man as his mistress and lives in sinful luxury. But then she falls in love with a thief, James Dalton. With him, she sinks ever lower, becoming a common whore and ending up in prison. Because she gives birth to a child she is permitted to leave prison, but it is too late: Dalton has died in the meantime, and she herself dies of syphilis in abject poverty. At her wake, those who accompanied her fall gather together again and discuss – most of them cynically – Moll’s fate. The old Needham plans to look after Moll’s daughter and give her an education.

Iain Bell is fascinated by the possibilities of the singing voice. To date he has composed chiefly song cycles; A Harlot’s Progress is his first opera. With an orchestra of sixty musicians, a forty-strong chorus and six soloists, the work is a deliberate continuation of the melodic traditions of twentieth-century British opera. As in ancient Greek theatre, the chorus provides additional information on the action and orchestral interludes describe those stages of the main character’s demise that are not played out on stage.