In Victorian Opera’s production, John Bell finds out who’s after your soul these days.

“For idle hearts, and hands, and minds, the Devil finds a work to do”, goes the age-old saying, as sung by the cast of The Rake’s Progress at the end of Stravinsky’s darkly comic morality tale.

The devil has many disguises. Just who, or what, is it in today’s world of instant gratification and material excess? In the opera, he takes the human form of Nick Shadow, a Faustian figure who turns the wholesome Tom Rakewell into a man of abundant wealth before leading him down the path of debauchery and ruin.

John Bell, director of Victorian Opera’s production, chose not to stage The Rake’s Progress in its original 18th-century setting. “I shied away from that,” he says. “I thought, ‘Let’s try to see who the devil is today; what are today’s vices and corruptions and who is the devil amongst us?’”

Bell’s idea of Nick Shadow – the devil disguised in a loud chequered suit – embodies that other age-old maxim: never trust a salesman. “He’s a bit of a charlatan, a kind of exaggerated version of a TV talk show host or a slimy car dealer,” he says.

Andrew Collis is relishing his role as Nick Shadow; although he has plenty of villains to choose from in the bass-baritone repertory, this is the first time he’s played the devil. He takes a “layered approach” to Shadow’s “chameleon-like charm. Nick doesn’t show his cards immediately; he appeals to Tom’s vanity, cajoles, flatters and leads him to screw up by degrading himself and those he loves as much as possible. It’s not pretty.”

Today’s incarnation of Nick Shadow, Collis says, would find easy prey in “the young people in our society who have suddenly become very successful and are being praised and reported in the press, have lots of money and are living the life – just think how often that goes wrong!” He says “footy stars”, in particular, had better watch out. 

Bell, a veteran Shakespearean director, is a relative newcomer to opera, having staged only a Madama Butterfly for Oz Opera and a Don Giovanni in his youth. The latter presents another “rake” of the opera world (“a fashionable or wealthy man of dissolute or promiscuous habits”, as my dictionary defines the archaic term) though, unlike Tom Rakewell, Mozart’s Lothario is his own corrupting force without need of a the devil on his shoulder egging him on, and he’s dragged off to hell for his sins.

Rakewell’s sins, encouraged and facilitated by Shadow, include frequenting a seedy brothel – here an S&M club replete with risqué costumes – presided over by the formidable madam Mother Goose (a “pretty full-on” male high tenor in drag, says Bell gleefully), and forsaking his betrothed, Anne Trulove to marry a bearded exotic dancer, Baba the Turk. On his self-destructive path he encounters a range of colourful characters and unsavoury types played by the Victorian Opera chorus, with choreography by Bell’s assistant director Stephen Heathcote. 

But it is only the love of ever-constant Anne, played by Tiffany Speight, that can redeem him – even if, by the end of the opera, he has lost his mind. “She’s like an angel,” says Speight; “Her role is to save Tom.” 

Bell agrees that the rake does banish the devil and find peace. Thanks to Anne’s guiding purity. “He does have a conscience and a desire to go straight, and in the madhouse he does experience a kind of redemption. At that point he’s in a state of insanity, but at least it’s a blissful state of insanity. He’s not suffering in the end – he’s in La-La Land.”

It was the buoyant neo-classical score – over and above the opera’s archetypal characters so often encountered in Shakespeare, and the densely poetic Baroque pastiche of W H Auden’s English libretto ­– that Drew Bell to The Rake’s Progress. “I love Stravinsky’s music. I had to respond in a very immediate and emotional way to it before I started analysing why and where the drama is in the piece. I had to just let the music hit me and carry me along.

“Mr Auden has gone overboard with the language, which is archaic and a bit too convoluted. And yet the emotional content of the music is quite overpowering.”

But this Stravinsky is not the enfant terrible whose savage rhythms sparked a riot at the 1913 premiere of his ballet The Rite of Spring. By 1951, when he completed The Rake’s Progress, the Russian expat composer was experimenting with neo-classicism, referring heavily to the musical idioms of Purcell and Mozart to hark back to the 18th-century origins of the narrative: a series of eight paintings by William Hogarth. Despite the gentler harmonic palette, and as always with Stravinsky, the devil’s in the detail. “He tricks you,” laughs Tiffany Speight, “and even when you’ve sung it so many times, it can be like someone getting into your brain and rattling it.”

Collis, too, relishes the challenge: “It’s a tough score and when we get it right it sounds very simple, but it is rarely simple.”

Despite the complex music and libretto , says Bell, The Rake’s Progress is “a very simple story, a very straightforward, naive parable with a good plot.

“It’s a very attractive opera. It has a very warm heart to it.”

Victorian Opera’s The Rake’s Progress runs at The Arts Centre in Melbourne until March 27. View event details here.