As recently and as long ago as the 1960s, Stravinsky’s second and last full-length opera The Rake’s Progress from 1951 (the first was The Nightingale from 1914) could still provoke heated controversy between those who thought it was the summum of Neoclassicism and those (typically the younger serialists and avant-gardists) who regarded it as another example of the composer’s tired grab-bag of tricks and tics that had outworn their welcome. In some respects one could count Stravinsky among the latter, as he soon turned his hand to serialism once Schoenberg was safely dead. One needn’t indulge in such polemics any more, now that all those tendencies have achieved museum status (and the idea of a stew of 18th-century and contemporary idioms doesn’t contravene current sensibilities, vide The Ghosts of Versailles). TRP remains, nonetheless, one of the few mid-20th-century operas to retain solid repertory status (though not so often in Boston: the last staged performance we can unearth was BLO’s in 1987, with a concert version by Emmanuel Music in 2011), and the staging put on by the Boston Conservatory this weekend at the BoCo Theater (we saw Thursday’s opening night; it repeats Friday through Sunday, with Casts 1 and 2 alternating), conducted by Andrew Altenbach and directed by Nathan Troup, was a good opportunity to enjoy the old master’s conjurings, though it must be added that the music does tend to sag in the third act along with the anti-hero’s fortunes.
The libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman is as much an exercise in neoclassicism as the music (for a fascinating analysis of the Stravinsky-Auden collaboration, focusing on their ideal congruity of outlook, see this essay by Herbert Lindenberger), although there were places within the high-diction text where it bordered dangerously on premonitory Stephen Sondheim. The libretto began, at Stravinsky’s request, with the narrative of Tom Rakewell taken from the series of eight paintings (later turned to etchings, with some differences from the originals) by William Hogarth, from 1732-5, entitled A Rake’s Progress, that Stravinsky had seen exhibited in Chicago in 1947, and from them built out the story to include a Faustian element by introducing the character of Nick Shadow (all the character names, as you can see, were thus stereotypical), the devil who tempts Tom to debauchery, ruin, madness and death by playing on the latter’s innate laziness and desire for short-cuts to riches and comfort. Shadow, by the way, was brilliantly sung and unctuously acted by Simon Dyer, and was equally brilliantly costumed by Lara De Bruijn as a Liberace-esque popinjay in pure white, except for black fingernails.
The rest of the principal cast was equally strong: Anna Bridgman’s Anne Trulove sang strongly and clearly, and gave no hint of living within a parody (not the only place in or facet of the opera that reminded us of Gilbert and Sullivan) in her principal aria “No word from Tom” (Lindenberger observes that Auden insisted that Stravinsky write a high C into this number, since what’s a soprano aria without one? On Thursday night Bridgman just barely missed, but she’ll get a second crack at it on Saturday). Eric Ferring’s Tom Rakewell was likewise powerful and direct, in a part that gave more range to conflicting emotions and a dramatic display of decline, which he conveyed with distinction and subtlety. The secondary characters were more variable, with Andrew O’Shanick as Father Trulove a bit too rigid of demeanor and his good projection and solid intonation a bit too wide of vibrato; Laura Zahn as the madam Mother Goose pleasing in voice, acting and presence; Emma Sorenson’s Baba the Turk, the bearded lady, having a good but not powerful enough voice, but making up for it in slapstick skill with her deadly farthingale; and Nelson Bettencourt effective in a vocal part without much scope but an interesting mincing and prancing characterization as Sellem the auctioneer (nothing in the libretto suggests this, but Troup needs to have something outré in his quiver to show for his efforts, and this was a nice touch). Thomas Gareau rounded out the cast as the kindly superintendent of Bedlam (Bethlehem) Hospital, Tom’s ultimate abode.
Stravinsky orchestrated this opera for a classical ensemble, winds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani and harpsichord, with prominent solos for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and harpsichord. Under Altenbach’s baton, the orchestra and soloists (based on the program, these would have been Kanae Kimura, Charles Furlong, Tylor Thomas, Kevin Natoli and Henry Buck, respectively) sounded wonderful.
The production had numerous imaginative touches as well: Troup’s direction was straightforward (with, as mentioned, a few entertaining excursions into physical comedy as well as a good feeling for stage tableaux) but made fine use of the scrim, on which a compilation from the Hogarth etchings was projected, along with translucent panels with sections of them. The scrim allowed extension of semi-entrances and exits, put distance between Shadow and the other characters (though not consistently), and the panels were well used to illustrate Anne’s trudge through London to find Tom. The sets by Julia Noulin-Mérat and the lighting by Carl Wiemann were likewise simple and effective, and also interacted well with the scrim and panels.
Johnathon Pape prepared supertitles (maybe better called “laterotitles,” since they were on either side of the stage), which proved both necessary and problematic in several ways. Necessary because Auden and Kallman’s Gilbertian English would be hard to discern even with the clearest of sung enunciation, and problematic because like all such titling it is visually distracting but also because, knowing that they are there can take some of the pressure off the singers to make their syllables as clear as possible. Fortunately, most of the singers didn’t fall for that trap.
Seated alongside us was a visitor from the UK who marveled that a student production could look and sound as professional as this one was, but perhaps in Boston we’ve become accustomed to that in our conservatories. This show is worth taking in if you have the chance.