UTAH OPERA, “The Rake’s Progress,” Capitol Theatre, May 9; through May 17, tickets at 801-355-2787, 888/451-2787 or www.utahopera.org
The role of the forbearing female is no stranger to the opera stage. The fur-bearing female is a different story, and is one of many novelties in Utah Opera’s stylish production of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.”
As a cautionary parable of humanity’s tendency toward corruption, “The Rake’s Progress” is an oft-told tale, dating back millennia. After all, the Ten Commandments were not written as an academic exercise. Stravinsky’s version draws upon inspiration that doesn’t go back quite that far, only to the eighteenth century and William Hogarth’s series of paintings depicting the decline of humanity from greed, lust, ambition, and idleness, as represented by the tenor lead, Tom Rakewell. Much of the story is metaphorical: Innocence, as represented by nature, the countryside and the feminine, falling victim to vice, as represented by the civilization, the city, and the masculine.
In the tumultuous times of the early and mid-20th century, that theme regained resonance among stage composers. In 1930, in Depression-era Germany, Kurt Weill composed the dark and menacing “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” with a text by Bertolt Brecht. Bookending “The Rake’s Progress” on the other end was Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 more lighthearted (if one can be lighthearted about rape and pillage) “Candide,” based upon Voltaire’s French satire.
Stravinsky’s opera is the momma bear of the three. His classically structured score is a sumptuous blend of Mozartean elegance and richness, never lacking in truly beautiful music (Rakewell’s aria, “Love too frequently betrayed…” as one of many examples). W.H. Auden’s libretto is at least equally masterful; even without the music it would make compelling poetry on its own. The sets, two-dimensional, monochromatic cross-hatched representations, paid homage to the era of moralistic 18th century etchings and woodcuts from which the opera is based, and complemented Stravinsky’s musical nod to the same period.
The performances all around rose to the quality of the score. Soprano Joelle Harvey was a radiant and touching Ann Trulove, whose voice lost none of its glowingly warmth even on a softly contoured high C. Tenor Norman Reinhardt as Tom Rakewell was convincingly versatile in all his emotional permutations, navigating through Stravinsky’s vocal gymnastics with facile confidence. Baritone Mark Schnaible sang a diabolically understated Nick Shadow to great sly effect. Having heard his title role in “Bluebeard’s Castle” with the Utah Symphony, he has carved himself a niche on the evil baritone market with his deep, dark tessitura. Mezzo Jill Grove was refreshingly robust as bearded Baba the Turk, the opera’s only character who truly knew who she was. Unlike the others, there’s no subtlety with Baba, and Grove’s unrestrained singing and verve provided just the right foil.
Equal kudos to the orchestra. Maestro Thierry Fischer has a well-known affinity for Stravinsky and that shone through. The score is not so much for an orchestra as for a kaleidoscope of small ensembles within the larger group. Fischer brought his customary care for clarity, balance, and attention to detail, and the musicians played with buoyant energy and flair. (One would hope that with such fine playing the musicians’ roster would be printed somewhere before page 48 in future program books.)
If there were any musical downsides, they were slight. For example, from time to time the chorus’s diction was not clear; the same was true on occasion with the articulation in the orchestra. That’s a particularly important consideration in Stravinsky, whose trademark is incisive rhythmic punctuation, but more than anything else that can be chalked up to the Capitol Theater’s tricky acoustics.
As opposed to the rich vitality of the singing and playing, the acting was for the most part restrained, Baba being the exception. I don’t know whether this was intentional—perhaps to reflect the classical lines of the music and set—or not. The result was occasional static and subdued lapses which did not correspond to the busy-ness of the music, with its constantly changing textures and colors that invited motion and action.
To compound that, the length of the final act is a miscalculation, being overly drawn out and lacking Stravinsky’s best music. The graveyard scene, in which Rakewell outwits Nick Shadow (the devil in disguise) is more clever than convincing and suffers in comparison with the card scene in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in which the relentless hand of Fate wends it inexorable way through the superficial gaiety surrounding it. Likewise, the madhouse scene, in which Anne Trulove unaccountably abandons her true love to his horrifying fate, goes on longer than necessary for a dénouement. In “Don Giovanni,” for example, when the flames of hell engulf Giovanni, Mozart wisely wraps things up in a few minutes of happy choral moralizing, understanding that after the climax the drama is essentially over. Nor does the conclusion of “The Rake’s Progress” elicit the tears of a Puccini finale. No matter how many times I see Mimi die in “La Boheme,” I always find myself hoping against hope that maybe this one time she’ll make it through.
It’s hard to know whether this “one-step-removed” quality is the result of the aloof part of Stravinsky’s personality, or his quasi-comedic interpretation of the parable, or the flatness of the sets (interesting though they were) and acting, or all of the above. Stravinsky himself may have been cognizant that the final act was not quite emotionally fulfilling, because he adds an unexpected and lighthearted Shakespearean twist at the very end with his characteristic craft and wit. Overall, the opera is engaging and thought provoking and the music is unquestionably beautiful, even by the definition of those who might have reservations about 20th century music. Bravo to Utah Opera for expanding its artistic horizons. Might we hope for Britten, Weill, or Bernstein in the future?