The epilogue to The Rake’s Progress includes the stricture “For idle hands / And hearts and minds / The Devil finds / A work to do.” That could be held up as a warning to the Boston Lyric Opera production that closed Sunday. Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, like the William Hogarth etchings that inspired it, is set in 18th-century London. BLO took “the elegant brutality” of Hogarth’s London and added 1950s pop icons and “the gaudy excesses of Hollywood” to create a “slam-up.” Not content with this London-LA mix, American Repertory Theater resident director Allegra Libonati injected a new character into the cast, Stravinsky himself. The result, at least on Sunday, was fun to watch, though at times it seemed that less might have been more.
In fairness, Stravinsky and his librettists, W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, weren’t all that faithful to Hogarth. A Rake’s Progress is a set of eight etchings taken from painted originals that was published in 1734. Upon the death of his miserly father, Tom Rakewell inherits a pretty penny, whereupon he pays off his pregnant common-law wife, Sarah, moves to London, and indulges in the best that city can offer: new clothes; dancing, fencing, and music masters; and, of course, whores. After Sarah has rescued him from being taken for debt, Tom marries a rich, ugly old maid and promptly gambles away his new fortune at White’s. By etching #7, he’s been incarcerated in the Fleet debtors’ prison; he winds up insane in Bedlam, hardly aware of Sarah’s attempts to minister to him.
Stravinsky and his librettists turned this moral fable into a Faustian tale with overtones of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Tom Rakewell has a devoted fiancée in Anne Trulove and a future father-in-law who’s secured him a position in a London countinghouse. Tom, however, assured that “Heaven predestines all,” believes he’s Fortune’s favorite (“Come, wishes, be horses, / This beggar shall ride”), and who could doubt it after Nick Shadow turns up to inform him he’s inherited from a hitherto unsuspected uncle? In short order, Tom and Nick are off to London and Mother Goose’s brothel. When Tom tires of such delights, Nick persuades him to seek marital bliss in the arms of the exotic Baba the Turk, who after the ceremony is unveiled as a bearded lady. Following a misadventure involving a machine that purports to turn stones into bread (the creators clearly recalling Jesus’s temptation in the desert), Nick demands payment—namely, as only Tom will be surprised to learn, Tom’s soul. With Anne’s inspiration, Tom escapes by beating Nick at cards, whereupon Nick cheats a second time by depriving Tom of his reason. Confined to Bedlam, Tom is comforted by Anne, but it’s too late, and although in the Epilogue Nick confesses there are times when he wishes he didn’t exist, we are reminded that the Devil has work for all of us.
As I watched the BLO production Sunday, there were times when the Devil seemed to be in the details. Anne and Father Trulove live in a country paradise that’s set against the evils of the big city, even as Tom is forsaking “silly wood and senseless park” for “the world’s enchanted fire.” Auden and Kallman surely have As You Like It in mind here: court and country in equal measure, court flamboyant but flagrant, country bucolic but boring. BLO’s set designer, Julia Noulin-Mérat, established the Truloves in what looked like a suburban housing development, complete with a modest aboveground swimming pool and a push lawnmower. It was the boring without the bucolic; there wasn’t much incentive for Tom to stay. The city was represented by a neon-lit brothel and, for Tom’s digs, a copper bathtub backed by floor-to-ceiling tile and a massive photo of blue skies. Stravinsky was living in West Hollywood when he composed Rake’s Progress, so there was a rationale for the LA setting, but it didn’t make a lot of sense when we still had London in the libretto and at one point saw headlines from the Daily Mirror. And while the costumes by John Conklin and Neil Fortin did suggest the 1950s, if you went in to see this production without knowing that Hollywood was intended, I don’t know that you’d exit any the wiser.
Putting Stravinsky onstage worked better, mostly because former Boston Ballet principal dancer Yury Yanowsky is such a powerful stage presence. Dressed in a well-tailored double-breasted suit, Yanowsky prowled about with Stravinskian authority, directing traffic, at one point even pretending to lead the orchestra. (Stravinsky conducted his opera’s 1951 premiere, in Venice, and the 1953 premiere recording.) When the curtain rose, Stravinsky was seen examining six of the eight Hogarth works. (Why only six?). The paintings did in fact inspire the opera; Stravinsky saw them when they visited the Chicago Art Institute in 1947. But the BLO Stravinsky didn’t have much to do till the third act’s graveyard scene, when Nick, at the point of demanding that Tom commit suicide, relents, says, “No wait,” and offers Tom a chance to save himself. Nick’s motivation is a puzzle; the BLO production, in a departure from the libretto that the Stravinsky estate was required to approve, had Stravinsky say those two words, out of concern for Tom, and force Nick to propose the card game. What’s more, in the libretto, Tom guesses Nick’s second card is the two of spades after Nick’s spade conveniently falls down. Here it was Stravinsky, after seeing the card, who knocked the spade over.
What happened to Stravinsky after the bread machine failed (in a nice period touch, it purported to turn out Wonder Bread) was harder to swallow. A gaggle of Nick’s minions wearing white tie and tails plus Carol Channing wigs and plague-doctor masks (because the premiere was in Venice?) appeared bearing Daily Mirror front pages, and Stravinsky quailed before such headlines as “Ruin! Disaster! Shame!”, “Premiere Chaos: Composer Booed,” “Sell-Out,” “Stravinsky Finished?”, and “Boston Police Arrest Stravinsky.” It all made for a great visual, but the headlines didn’t have much to do with the opera. “Premiere Chaos” must refer to the 1913 Paris premiere of Le sacre du printemps, “Boston Police Arrest Stravinsky” to the 1944 brouhaha over the arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that Stravinsky conducted with the BSO. (The BPD threatened to arrest Stravinsky but never actually did.) As for “Sell-Out” and “Stravinsky Finished?”, the brand of neoclassicism that Stravinsky had been turning out since Pulcinella got mixed reviews. Olin Downes in the New York Times was unimpressed; he hadn’t been impressed with much of anything Stravinsky had composed since Sacre. But Virgil Thomson in the New York Herald Tribune called the opera’s instrumental writing “definitive” and “virtually perfect” from a vocal point of view. In any case, it’s hard to imagine Stravinsky quailing, in the face of critics, headlines, or anything else.
A couple other BLO innovations also seemed open to question. Nick hands Tom a broadsheet promoting Baba the Turk; we learn that brave warriors have swooned from a mere glance at her, and Nick calls her a gorgon, but it’s not till she removes her veil for the crowd that the audience (and perhaps Tom) realizes she’s a bearded lady. In the BLO production, Nick started the sequence by showing Tom a Life magazine cover of Baba with flowing beard, so there was no suspense and no surprise. Everyone was surprised, however, when Anne showed up at Sellem’s auction pregnant and near delivery. (In retrospect, one might have suspected from the letter Baba tried to hide from Tom.) It’s easy to understand BLO’s thinking here: Hogarth’s Sarah is left pregnant, so why not Stravinsky’s Anne? And it’s not as if we hadn’t seen Tom and Anne canoodling in that tub of a swimming pool. But if Anne is to be Tom’s counterweight, surely she has to retain her innocence. Otherwise she’s merely seduced and abandoned, and her “true love” is just a concern for her and her baby’s future.
In short, there was a lot about this Rake that didn’t add up, and yet the production was hard to dislike. Picking up on the way both the graveyard scene and the Epilogue recall Don Giovanni, Conklin and Fortin dressed Nick’s minions in black, with faces covered in black silk and black tricorners for hats. Accessories, like gloves and shoes and handbags, were red; Nick himself wore a plum-colored suit with a red-and-black waistcoat and shoes and a red tie. The Roaring Boys boasted pink shirts, plaid shorts, studded black vests, black garters, and dark glasses; they might have stepped straight from a Weill / Brecht opera. The inmates of Bedlam wore aprons painted with the titles of Stravinsky’s works—everything from Orpheus to The Fairy’s Kiss—plus stylish paper hats and crowns. A lot of thought, and apparently money, went into this production. You could argue it was misguided; it certainly never bored.
And Stravinsky’s score? It begins with a fanfare meant to conjure the one Monteverdi wrote for L’Orfeo and thus salute the history of opera. Stravinsky wrote that, “having chosen a period-piece subject, I decided—naturally, as it seemed to me—to assume the conventions of the period as well. . . . My plan of updating did not include updating or modernizing, however.” That approach in evident in the use of harpsichord to accompany the recitatives, and in arias like Anne’s “No word from Tom,” where recitative is followed by cavatina, recitative, and finally cabaletta. Yet there’s a restlessness throughout. The Trulove pastoral paradise, where Anne is the May Queen and Tom the Summer King, isn’t exactly poisoned, but the score makes it easy to sense Tom’s discontent. (So does the libretto, actually: Anne’s first words are “The woods are green,” but later Tom refers to Nature as “green unnatural mother” and cites “the green sickness.”) Even at the end, when Anne sings of Tom’s little boat gliding “Towards the Islands of the Blest,” the music offers little rest. In that sense Stravinsky did update.
The irony of this BLO Rake is that it’s so powerfully and intelligently sung, the company didn’t really need a conceit—I would like to have seen this cast in a more traditional production. Ben Bliss’s Tom was likable in character and heroic in voice; he had an easy assurance about him that never quite achieved happiness. Anya Matanovic, a staid Violetta in BLO’s 2014 Traviata, was more animated here as Anne, although she didn’t really come to life till her great act-two duet with Tom. Her cabaletta, “I will go to him,” was a little hard in its determination, but Stravinsky doesn’t give Anne much choice. It’s a difficult character to portray; Stravinsky subsequently noted, with some reason, that “Anne bears a perilous resemblance to Micaela.” Kevin Burdette brought the same good-natured energy to Nick that he did to Leporello in BLO’s 2015 Don Giovanni; without giving offense he even managed to suggest to the audience that we might not be any smarter than Tom.
As Baba the Turk, Heather Johnson sashayed and paraded with a confidence that made Anne look callow. She had a harder time after her marriage to Tom, when the beard came off (the libretto never suggests that Baba’s beard isn’t real) and the production turned her into a frowsy scold; the transition to Anne’s friend and confidante was a leap. David Cushing conveyed an authoritative and not preachy Trulove; Jon Jurgens, the admirable Dorian in Odyssey Opera’s The Picture of Dorian Gray last fall, was resplendent in pink wig as auctioneer Sellem. Metropolitan Opera star Jane Eaglen made a green goddess out of the cameo role of Mother Goose; Simon Dyer made for a kind Keeper of the Madhouse.
The orchestra, under BLO music director David Angus, balanced sympathy with satire, but Sunday’s performance peaked with Tom and Anne’s second-act duet and flagged thereafter. It wasn’t the pacing—the performance ran just over three hours, with one reasonable intermission, which put it in line with Stravinsky’s recordings. Perhaps the production itself was too heavy on satire to allow the madhouse scene to register properly. All the same, Bliss was wistful and Matanovic tender, in some of the best singing of the afternoon.
After the inmates have sung “Mourn for Adonis” and the curtain has come down, the cast is instructed to enter in front of the curtain, in their street clothes, and deliver the Epilogue. Sunday, in one last thoughtful touch, the curtain started to come down, prompting the audience to applaud; then it rose again, and the performers appeared, some carrying their costumes, to address us with unsettling directness. It was a fine finish to an imaginative, creditable production.