in: Reviews

March 13, 2017

BLO Does Stravinsky Proud

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Baba the Turk (Heather Johnson) in Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of Stravinsky’s THE RAKES PROGRESS (T Charles Erickson photo)

“The woods are green and bird and beast at play…” begins Stravinsky’s neoclassical opera The Rake’s Progress, whose fantastic new Boston Lyric Opera production is set in 1950s Hollywood. The company continued the celebration of their 40th season with a soldout opening night Sunday at the Cutler Majestic Theater, with the production repeating on Wednesday March 15 and Friday March 17 at 7:30pm and Sunday March 19 at 3pm.

This three-act English opera combines a poetic libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman with elements of Faustian legends, lullabies, street songs, and morality plays. The “green woods” of Auden’s opening scene at the home of soprano Anne Truelove and her father takes place on a miniaturized model of a Los Angeles suburb, complete with Astroturf to mow. Anne is sung by Anya Matanovic, a silken-voiced soprano who excels at the role’s occasional moments of heroism (“I go to him” in Act I & II). Preparing to sing this role, she commented, “This is the most beautifully orchestrated piece I have ever sung.” Returning to Boston after her successful Violetta in the BLO’s La traviata, she flaunted a lithe and flexible sound that makes an excellent match for her own true love, tenor Ben Bliss (Tom Rakewell). Their beautiful duet in the first act blends pathos and elegance, and allows the audience its only moment of pure happiness and hope for this young couple.

Author and poet Auden had been recommended to Stravinsky as librettist by the composer’s LA neighbor, Aldous Huxley, due to Auden’s work with Benjamin Britten. Auden and Christopher Isherwood had encouraged Britten to travel to America after working with him in John Grierson’s WPO Film Unit in 1939. They collaborated on Paul Bunyan in New York City, Hymn to St. Cecilia on the boat back to England, and a movement of the Spring Symphony (“Out on the lawn I lie in bed”), dedicated to the Boston Symphony. Auden was a perfect partner for Stravinsky on this project, as his love of classical poetic forms and willingness to work closely with the composer on the scenario revealed many shared philosophies. Auden wrote, “No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible,” and set out their common goals for the project: “There must always be two kinds of art: escape art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and to learn love.” Stravinsky returned: “[Auden and I] shared the same views not only about opera, but also on the nature of the Beautiful and the Good.” Both were fans of Mozart, and their songs for Anne Truelove reflect that devotion. Her final aria in Act I, a four-part showpiece (recitative, cavatina, recitative, cabaletta), features the most compelling tunes and classical structures of the work, and even the Rake himself quotes the melodies in Act III when he realizes that true love has not deserted him.

The visual theme of the production recalls Hollywood in the 1950s, where Stravinsky settled after experiencing winter in the Boston area. After delivering the 1939-’40 Norton Lectures at Harvard, he married Vera de Bosset Sudeikin in Bedford. His Norton talk, delivered in French, was  translated into English by Alfred Knodel and Ingolf Dahl and published as Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons; in it, the composer insisted that music should be a revelation of a higher order to be faithfully executed by the performer, rather than a medium of self-expression to be interpreted. In the opera this focus is most evident at the very end, when Anne sings a sweet lullaby to Tom Rakewell, not to express her own feelings but to soothe him. The moments when characters were stripped to their cores (Tom in Bedlam, Anne in her lullaby, and Nick Shadow when singing drunken duets with Tom) were the most affecting parts of this production, as vibrato and bravado were stripped away, leaving only Stravinsky’s pure tones, nestled in halos of woodwind choirs or nakedly a cappella. We are meant to see ourselves in all of these characters; in Auden’s famous words, “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us”.

Although barely half a century old, this opera has already had many legendary productions. David Hockney’s designs based on the intaglio engravings of William Hogarth for Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1975, revived 2010) have been the most influential, but the BLO has become known for its creative reinterpretations of classics.

Yury Yanowsky (Stravinsky) feels the weight of criticism (T Charles Erickson photo)

The production focuses more on the interior life of the composer himself, who is present onstage in a danced role by Yury Yanowsky that at its height approaches Martha Graham’s famous Lamentation. Several difficult problems of staging are creatively solved through the composer’s physical intervention onstage, and we are asked to face a new question of morality alongside him, so appropriate to his new “American” life in Hollywood: “What happens when you sell out?” David Weininger’s Globe article delves into details of this new element (approved by the Stravinsky estate), but you might rather see the production for yourself before knowing more … and Stravinsky’s music represents him very well, even without this new physical presence onstage. As Oscar Wilde quipped, “Every author paints his own portrait”.

Auden remarked, “The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” So at the Cutler, we meet Baba the Turk (portrayed by the superlative Heather Johnson) in a Marilyn Monroe wig, Sellem (the auctioneer) in stilettos and a cotton-candy-pink bouffant updo, the brothel owner Mother Goose (a transformed Jane Eaglen), and choruses of Roaring Boys, Whores, and Madmen in Vivienne Westwood-inspired glam punk and rags covered with references to Stravinsky’s dramatic works. Designer John Conklin, set designer Julia Noulin-Mérat, and costume and wig designers Neil Fortin and Jason Allen play up pop culture elements, much in the way that Stravinsky collaborated with circuses and film companies in this period. Samples of their work are included in this short BLO video, which illustrates the vision, props, costumes, and music.

Are Stravinsky’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame, his Balanchine ballet for elephants (Circus Polka), and his work on Fantasia evidence of his best? Or was there a bit of the Rake in him as well? His devilish Nick Shadow provides crucial elements of contrast and narrative continuity. When developing the role with Kallman, Auden commented, “Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.” Kevin Burdette’s Nick dominates this Faustian universe through humor, a variety of vocal colors (is he talking to Tom, or to me?), and crisp diction. This Nick Shadow always appears with at least a touch of red, and wields a delightful bright, brassy tone that can crush others in its wake. Nick is the only character who seems aware of Stravinsky onstage, and the most telling moment between the two involves their pacing slowly around a swimming pool, beautifully lit by Mark Stanley, while Nick tosses bright, brassy coins into its depths. In Auden’s words, “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods”.

The role of Tom Rakewell requires the stamina of Norma and the cool flexibility of a leggiero tenor. He is almost always with us onstage, and Ben Bliss pulls out all the stops for this role, growing gradually stronger and surer as his character progresses. His powerful “Here I stand” opens the show, and his gorgeous hymns to Venus in Act III (sitting on a heartbreaking shred of Astroturf) almost bring us to our knees with him. Auden felt for his title character, remarking, “All sins tend to be addictive, and the terminal point of addition is damnation,” but Stravinsky redeems Tom again and again through song. Rakewell provided Stravinsky with opportunities to write his longest, most tonal melodies, so I find it interesting that the composer praised Gounod for working in opera even though critics labeled him “a symphonist astray in the theater.” Like The Rake’s Progress, critics declared that Faust was “not the work of a melodist,” and Stravinsky ironically observed that critics “reproached [Gounod] with having ‘achieved his effects not through the voices, but through the orchestra’”. Yet his Rake’s Progress seems to take these criticisms as a credo.

Tom’s music helps to unlock the kaleidoscopic puzzle of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. Other character’s arias begin with clear motives and themes, only to disintegrate into a series of episodes that move quickly through nontraditional key relationships and recitative-like sections. Some of the most effective parts of the opera approach speech and folksong, while otherworldly combinations of woodwinds (especially reeds) spin auras of sound around female voices. Comments germane to Stravinsky’s music for this production by Music Director David Angus may be found here.

Reflecting on his rise to fame with the early ballets, Stravinsky said “I was made a revolutionary in spite of myself,” and defined art as “by essence, constructive,” “free of gratuitous excess.” He started to concentrate on shorter melodies (“the musical intonation of cadenced phrases”) that could move quickly through multiple key areas when linked. But even though he noted that “we instinctively prefer coherence (order) and its quiet strength to the restless powers of dispersion (dissimilarity),” he set out in a new direction in his American projects. “My experience shows me the necessity of discarding in order to select and the necessity of differentiating in order to unite”.

In researching grand opera with Auden and Kallman, Stravinsky praised Verdi’s “La donna è mobile” and derided Wagnerian drama for its “continual bombast.” Contact with Auden encouraged the composer’s quest for innovation, as the author had famously said to Britten, “Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”

Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell meets a band of London hooligans (T Charles Erickson photo)

And so in this work, tenor Jon Jurgens’s interpretation of the auctioneer provides us with a modernist Verdian moment: it is the funniest, brashest, most physically committed portrayal of Sellem I have ever seen, and many audience members mentioned that they hoped they might someday hear him in the title role. Sellem’s fiery coloratura and quick banter show us Stravinsky’s playful side, as his more complex characters are not allowed the bombast and excess of traditional aria forms. The composer controls and limits all of his main characters in a way that may leave some listeners cold, but since his famous Harvard lectures he had claimed, “The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free.”

Before the performance, BLO Opera Coach James Myers read well-prepared remarks peppered with references to Stravinsky’s work and writing to a pre-opera audience of 150. He illustrated the composer’s facility for simplicity and elegance by playing some of Anne Truelove’s final lullaby and provided audio examples to illustrate the approach to texture, orchestration, and neoclassicism from each act. After the performance, supporters, artists, and staff of the BLO decamped to Erbaluce on Church Street for a multilevel party and wine tasting. This is a challenging production (does Stravinsky succeed in navigating between art and celebrity?), a challenging story (can love really redeem us once lost?), and a matchless opportunity to hear a modern masterpiece in the gorgeous Cutler Majestic Theater. Three more performances of The Rake’s Progress will be followed by a new production of the Marriage of Figaro—and then we may find out whether Auden’s words ring true: “Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate.”

A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. That last quotation of Auden’s, that a happy marriage “is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate,” strikes me as absurdly untenable except, perhaps, to a psychiatrist, philosopher, or sociologist. Readers of the great plays, novels, or narrative poems of the European and American tradition would hardly agree. If we extend the married union to the family as a whole, Tolstoy’s observation that begins “Anna Karenina” explains why this is so (I paraphrase): “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.” Universal “alike-ness” is death to literature. The limits to making a happy marriage “interesting” from work to work over the centuries are real and forbidding. It is the differences—and the unhappiness—in marriages that nurture the variety and fascination of great plays, novels and poems (and yes, Auden knew this perfectly well).

    Comment by Alan Levitan — March 14, 2017 at 11:02 pm

  2. Anna Karenina might be considered Tolstoy’s attempt to demonstrate that a happy marriage can be just as interesting as an unhappy one, at which he miserably fails. He does manage to make both of them more interesting than the extramarital romance between Anna and Vronsky, though, so that particular example doesn’t disprove Auden’s premise (which I agree is ridiculous).

    Comment by SamW — March 15, 2017 at 3:37 pm

  3. Note that Auden is being incompletely quoted and perhaps incompletely understood. (Quite aside from the fact that I concur in his take.)

    Comment by david moran — March 15, 2017 at 3:52 pm

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