As concerned asylum keepers frowned down from a lofty perch at the inmates below in the BU Opera Institute production of the ever-popular Stravinsky-Auden-Kallman The Rake’s Progress (1951), the new Booth Theater, a too-flexible space in search of a theatrical purpose, found itself contorted into an accommodating padded cell, appropriately blurring boundaries between inmates and audience (two pockets recessed into the stage floor even placed a portion of the crowd in the midst of the action). Through some insightful recycling and effective student stagehand efforts, a bland black box emerged as a cross between a Peter Brookian Charenton and a Calder Circus in stage director Jim Petosa’s effective reimagining. Scenic designer James F. Rontondo III’s squiggly but figurative insane wall paintings on floor and walls completed the simulation of an antiseptic but vandal-tagged bedlam, where the action progressed last Friday (and three other times).
The set design placed the orchestra under the stage Bayreuth-style, opening a broad downstage slot large enough to release the otherwise trapped sounds and allowed conductor William Lumpkin to see the action and partially be seen by the 34 players. Video monitors semaphored his cues to upstage singers. Ensemble achieved signal tightness from stage to pit, within the pit, and among the solo and choral singers. This was amazing, considering the amount of strolling minstrelsy involved, on three levels and four sides, and the demands for realization of very detailed and witty instrumental work and singing.
The first of Hogarth’s eight immortal paintings places the heir/naïf Tom Rakewell in company with his (Stravinsky’s) Anne Truelove and her Father Truelove. As Rakewell, Dongwhi Baek registered proper befuddlement in Peter Pearsian light tenor tones. That he retained his freshness through the long and demanding sing testifies to the security of his vocal training and his willingness to avoid pushing. He never tired, nor did we weary of his presence, other than to wonder sometimes about his enunciation. Frank Rosamond gave suitable gravity to the father. Ryan C. Goodwin costumed him in an all-black, vaguely doge-like outfit, which contrasted, as much as any color could, with the Snow-White outfit of Anne, whose traversal in the person of Caroline Corrales found fine focus, clarity, coloratura and lustre. Shadow Erik Danielson possesses a barihunk instrument which stole the show, as he showed a devilish advocate’s relish for the Rake’s seemingly pallid pursuit of pleasure. When he appears to tempt the penniless Tom, the drama is amped, and the transformation of country mouse to city mouse begins as he whisks Tom off to decadent London. And we know what happens when souls are sold for transitory pleasures.
The prostitutes, johns and madams in this post #MeToo undergraduate Limehouse demimonde carefully limited their lasciviousness. Despite the gyrations and odalisque poses in underwear, it looked more like a Jockey boxer ad than an immersion in rakish decadence. That said, the 14-member chorus took on its many characters and sang with distinction throughout the long night. Stravinsky asks much of them, and they delivered both as active participants and moralistic interlocutors. Kudos to Allison Voth for solid preparation.
Absent scene changes in this unit set, we had to make do with the projecting colors, patterns, and varieties of brilliance in Kat Zou’s lighting plan; it clarified the geometry of the many rooms in Stravinsky’s mansion and underlined the story. Surtitles appeared resplendent in period-perfect typewriter Pica.
The lesser roles all found admirable interpreters, equally at home in recitatives, arias and ensembles. Myka Murphy’s semi-star turn as Baba the Turk projected her very own variety of comic swagger and a contralto-profundo seemingly emerging from deep beneath her beard across the footlights (yes, there were footlights). Jade Espina, taking the droit de seigniorita of Mother Goose to hothouse realms, romanced the audience in attractive tones and Rakewell with, we can imagine, a thoroughly satisfying initiation. As the auctioneer Sellem of the bankrupt Tom’s movable assets, Brennan Meier St. Vitussed all over the stage, to our great comic delight.
Shadow’s descent into the inevitable flaming trap after failing to win Rakewell’s soul evokes our sympathy for this devil. The play needs him. Stravinsky, whose nostalgic tributes to musics we can imagine that Hogarth might have heard (he claimed rather to be immersed in Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the time, though experts find nary a trace), work perfectly in comedy. And while Stravinsky’s surprisingly inevitable English text setting gives exemplary treatment to Auden’s superior libretto, the composer can’t quite warm to Anne Truelove’s soothing embrace of the insane Rakewell who imagines himself to be Adonis. But that scene goes by fast enough that we don’t have to wait long for the curtain-call quintet epilogue, which rehashes the earlier jollity while moralizing on meaning. “For idle hands and hearts and minds, the Devil finds a work to do.” It seemingly summons Don Giovanni and anticipates Bernstein’s Candide.
Producer Oshin Gregorian once more showed abundant skill in husbanding the BU Opera Department’s resources while providing an advanced workshop show satisfying to discerning patrons and giving performers’ parents the evidence of tuition dollars well spent.
In Rake, something of a one-off for the composer, Stravinsky softens the rigid backbone of his fashionably icy neoclassicism and sets a simple familiar story effectively. While no one would mistake it for 18th-century music, it does embody some of the opera seria structure in its recitatives and set pieces, but the composer’s mastery of modern harmony never allows us to forget that it is a product of the 1950s. Seemingly naïve, it requires sophistication, clarity and focus from orchestra and singers. We got all those qualities in abundance from these student forces under Lumpkin.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.
Jeffrey Gantz’s synopsis from his 2018 BMInt review, one of five from recent Boston productions, tells the tale and more:
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.
Mark DeVoto’s afterwords background Rake very helpfully.
The Rake’s Progress has a history at Boston University; Sarah Caldwell, then on the faculty, produced the opera there in 1953, but I didn’t see it then, which would have been almost at the same time as the Metropolitan Opera production, less than two years after the world premiere in Venice; nor did I see it some 12 or so years later when she produced it downtown with her own company (the Roaring Boys rode in on stage on motorcycles and wore Stravinsky sweatshirts).
The history of the opera is well documented by Craft in his diaries and by Stravinsky himself, whose commentary from the 1960s bears some quotation: “The Rake’s Progress is simple to perform musically, but difficult to realize on stage. I contend, however, that the chief obstacles to a convincing visual conception are no more than the result of an incapacity to accept the work for what it is. True, Tom’s machine-baked bread may be hard to swallow, but even it will go down, I think (with a lot of butter and more than a few grains of salt) if the stage director has not lost sight of the opera’s ‘moral fable’ proposition by overplaying the realism of ‘the Rakewell story.’” The Rakes Progress may be a nightmare for the propmaster and the stage manager, but as a moral fable there’s no doubt that the opera succeeds, from frivolity metamorphosing into Faustian fatality, though it takes time — necessary time — to develop completely. Many critics have made the claim that The Rake’s Progress is one of the few operas with a nigh-perfect libretto — Così fan tutte and Falstaff are sometimes mentioned by comparison. Certainly the collaboration between Stravinsky and Auden (with Kallman added to the workshop, much to its benefit, before Stravinsky could object) produced an eighteenth-century poetic simulacrum that, like Stravinsky’s music, could not be mistaken for anything but modern — much as Stravinsky had written about his Octet for winds (1922): “Composition, structure, form, here are all in line of the 18th-century masters” — with key signatures, secco recitatives, and pandiatonic harmony. And a nice touch: Auden’s first letter to Stravinsky, 12 October 1947, replying to the composer’s invitation to collaborate, included this: “I have an idea, which may be ridiculous, that between the two acts, there should be a choric parabasis as in Aristophanes.” The idea was realized in the final libretto, but placed at the end of the opera, as in Don Giovanni.