"Music can be married to gestures or to words – but not to both without bigamy!" he declared in 1913; by the late 1940s he was determined to write not only a full-length opera, but a full-blown homage to Mozartian operatic form.
"It was a crazy idea," says David McVicar, director of Scottish Opera's new production of The Rake's Progress. He's talking about Stravinsky's decision to write a neo-classical morality tale while the predominant musical elite was besotted with serialism. "It was a brilliant idea, though. And it flies in the face of every other contemporary opera that was being written at the time. It was very brave."
Stravinsky was at an exhibit in Chicago in 1947 when he came across A Rake's Progress: eight engravings by the 18th century English artist William Hogarth telling the rise and demise of a naïve country boy who sells his soul for fame and fortune in the city. Hogarth's lucid depiction of London's underbelly provided the framework Stravinsky was looking for: with no formal commission and no production secured for a premiere, he paid a couple of writers (WH Auden and Chester Kallman, no less) to pen him a libretto. "It was just something that came to him," says McVicar. "He really wanted to write a classical opera in classical form. I don't know why."
McVicar, Glasgow-born and one of the world's most sought-after opera directors, has wanted to direct The Rake's Progress for years, but bizarrely hasn't been given the chance until now. During a break in rehearsals last week, he and designer John Macfarlane talked me through their take on The Rake: why it has to be set in the 18th century; why its characters have to feel real; why, despite it being a fable and a pastiche, we should take it seriously.
"At the heart of it is a very serious and moving opera which is about the loss of innocence," says McVicar. "And that theme comes very much from WH Auden, who was friends with Benjamin Britten in their early days in America. Britten's operas are obsessed with loss of innocence and fall from grace, and Auden is too, in a slightly different way. So Rake's Progress is a kind of parallel world to the world of the Britten operas."
The first production (Venice, 1951) was a disappointment. Carl Ebert had been hired to direct against the wishes of Auden and Kallman; "they didn't want him," McVicar explains, "and it wasn't good. Ebert subsequently went on to do another production at Glyndebourne that Osbert Lancaster, the cartoonist, did designs for. That's a clue – the fact that he asked Lancaster to do the designs –of what Ebert thought about the piece. He didn't take it seriously. He regarded it as nothing more than brilliant Mozartian pastiche."
"You've got to remember that this is a time when even Mozart wasn't taken that seriously by directors. This is a time when Così fan tutte is basically a restoration comedy– a farce. Ebert never penetrated below the surface of things."
Two decades later Glyndebourne commissioned a new production. In a stroke of risky genius of his own, director John Cox asked a young painter called David Hockney – who didn't know the opera and had no experience in a theatre – to help out. Together they created what remains the benchmark production of the Rake, Hockney's iconic crosshatching shot through with snippets of Hogarth.
We won't be seeing such explicit references on Saturday, according to McVicar – "simply because the Hockney production is so famous for directly quoting Hogarth. We had to go in another direction. But we still locate it in the 18th century, which actually not many people do nowadays."
This for McVicar seems something of a point of principal. "If composer and librettists went to such great lengths to create this piece that uses 18th century form, both literary and musical, it seems perverse to not make it about the period that they wanted it to be about. Eighteenth century conventions are embedded in it. That's the elegance of what Stravinsky's doing. He essentially wrote an opera that Mozart didn't write – that's the brilliant intellectual game of it."
And anyway, he doesn't like the audience to be bewildered. "I'm just very, very old-fashioned. I read what the text says, and this is a story about an 18th century boy who goes to London and loses his soul-"
Macfarlane is nodding agreement – "I'm old fashioned too! I quite like things to make sense-" – and describes his sets as "a painted aesthetic, which isn't just because I'm a painter. We felt strongly that it should not be like Hogarth, but should still explain the streets of London in the kind of painted language of very simple 18th century theatre sets. And there are a lot of references to the superstitions of 18th century people. They believed in death stalking London and retribution for sins – our metaphor shows death in the form of a skeleton."
Period this production shall be, then, but genteel it shall not. "Another thing about the piece," says Macfarlane, "is that you've got so many different classes, starting from the poor and the scuzzy of London. Hogarth's paintings are solidly about class. They're about people with spots and sores and syphilis and ghastly diseases mixing with people who have all the same things but the money to dress big and powder it up. You smell Hogarth. A street scene from Hogarth – you're getting a real sense of what life would have been life."
The Rake's Progress is a fable, complete with moral-of-the-story ending sung by the principal characters, much like Mozart's Don Giovanni. But neither McVicar nor Macfarlane doubt the depth of its characters: take Anne Trulove, who holds out for Tom (The Rake) while he woefully self-destructs in London. "You could say she has no character at all," says McVicar, "because she is the simply embodiment of an idea of constant love.
"But she has beautiful music to sing. And you ask the artist to connect with the music, and you cast it well. You cast it with a lassie who doesn't have to force it – someone who can do purity in a way that isn't cloying, whom the audience can feel instant sympathy for. When you're dealing with artifice the cast have to believe in the artifice in order for them to suspend disbelief. They have to be 100 % sincere about their emotional journeys." And the Theatre Royal, says Macfarlane, is "the dream theatre to do this opera; yes, there are practical problems [maneouvering their flat painted sets around the tiny wing space has become 'like a military campaign'] but in terms of audience contact with the stage – an intimacy for something that is quite creepy – this is great."
Opens on Saturday. See www.scottishopera.org.uk for details.