For those whose musical tastes run to mid-century modern, it was a rare treat to see Pacific Opera Project’s one-weekend-only production of Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress at Occidental College Sept. 17-18. Los Angeles, of all places, should be a nexus for the performance of this work, considering that Stravinsky lived here for many years, including when he wrote this opera in the late 1940s. While there have been a few student productions, somehow neither LA Opera nor Long Beach Opera have ever performed the work, although they should — it has much to recommend it.
There’s a lot of artistic heritage to unpack with this opera. The name and plot comes of course from William Hogarth’s famous 18th-century set of eight drawings and engravings tracing the hazards of the dissolute life. Then there is the towering talent of Stravinsky himself, one of the 20th century’s most influential composers. To top it off, the libretto was co-written by well-known poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, lifelong friends (and occasionally lovers).
Despite his reputation for transgressive music, particularly 1913’s The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s score for The Rake’s Progress is quite melodic and listenable, hardly dissonant at all. Musicologists refer to this as an exemplar of Stravinsky’s “neoclassical” period in which he explored earlier, more conventional classical conventions. Music Director Stephen Karr ably conducted POP’s largest-yet orchestra that included many woodwinds as well as harpsichord.
With this opera, the libretto is definitely more “out there” than the music. The imagery and word choice is complex, dense and rich as good poetry demands, and the word order is oddly rearranged, which results in a syntax more akin to German than English. It’s worth noting that Auden and Kallman collaborated on several other opera librettos, including Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. Might this explain why, in certain parts of The Rake’s Progress, I could sense an affinity to the comic and musical ideas of Mozart’s operas? The singing is in English, and while the supertitles always help, the acoustics in Thorne Hall on the Occidental College campus were good enough to understand much of the libretto without them.
Director Josh Shaw assembled a strikingly good cast of singers to present the opera. Brian Cheney, who has appeared in several other POP operas, played the Rake, Tom Rakewell. His clear, well-projected tenor was a delight to listen to throughout. Tom’s virtuous, long-suffering fiancée, Anne Trulove, was played by Rachele Schmiege, who seemed best in her fortissimo moments, at least prior to intermission. The baritone Adrian Rosas played Nick Shadow, the satanic figure who leads Tom astray. While his vocals were faultless, he impressed less with his not-very-menacing demeanor. Bass Patrick Blackwell was really good as Father Trulove, plumbing Stygian depths with his powerful voice.
The plot is really kind of silly, and Shaw plays up the absurdity without descending into slapstick. The most amusing parts come in the second half where we meet Tom’s bearded wife, Baba the Turk (Adelaide Sinclair), whom he succeeds in silencing by putting a box over her head with a happy face drawn on the front. The raucous auction scene that follows, where Tom’s possessions (including his wife) are sold off, is worth the price of admission alone.
The last scene takes place in Bedlam, where Tom has ended up after becoming delusional, believing himself to be Adonis. Anne’s visit to him is touching and a fitting end to what seems to be essentially a morality play, but spiced up with a touch of postmodern irony. One can only hope to see this opera revived again, and with more regularity, by Los Angeles’ major opera companies. In the meantime, it is gratifying to see a level of maturity in this production that bodes well for future productions of Pacific Opera Project.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA
For information on Pacific Opera Project, visit http://www.pacificoperaproject.com.