Britain’s best known artist David Hockney once sped me through the hills of Los Angeles in his red sports car.

With Wagner screaming loudly and his boyfriend filming, Hockney was enthusing about his twin obsessions for colour and perspective. Hockney’s restless exploration of these through all kinds of visual arts led him, not surprisingly, to design for the stage.

His very first design, for a Glyndebourne Festival production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, is now being staged by Opera Australia.

It’s a landmark designer production which brings alive the world of William Hogarth, whose famous engravings on the decline of an 18th century rake inspired Stravinsky to convince English poet W.H. Auden to write a libretto.

Hockney’s cross-hatching in costumes and sets, with mad perspective and splashes of colour, weaves character and background together into a surreal world with its own mad logic.

It’s hard to believe the production is more than 30 years old. Hockney’s design matches the same modern wit and irony which the composer and the librettist both bring to Hogarth’s moral fable.

Tom Rakewell is wooing his betrothed when a mysterious servant, Nick Shadow, tells him he’s inherited a fortune. Brilliant tableaux capture Tom’s subsequent moral decline in the brothels, corruption and high society of London.

Shadow even urges him to defy lust and duty by marrying the Bearded Lady -“ a coy homosexual metaphor I think for crossing all social boundaries.

With busy harpsichord and formal construction, Stravinsky’s score is neo-classical in its reverence for Mozart, but with modern quicksilver elements.

Joshua Bloom is a riveting, darkly handsome Shadow who, now revealed as the devil, lures Rakewell to hell -“ to follow the path of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

As Rakewell, though, John Heuzenroeder has the challenge of playing a man too weak to be heroic but too virtuous to be happily debauched. Leanne Kenneally brings gusto and fine voice to his constant love, Anne Trulove.

But the real pleasure is in the Hogarthian rogues played by Elizabeth Campbell, Catherine Carby and Kanen Breen.

The Rake’s Progress is a satisfying balance of modernity and tradition, a balance of Stravinsky’s modern ear for Mozart, of Auden’s religiously motivated but still cheeky storytelling and now Hockney’s re-visioning of Hogarth’s wonderful parodies.

The Rake’s Progress is at the Sydney Opera House until 24 March.

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