Rake, no progress

rake_levineJames Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met includes not only unreleased video performances on DVD but also live radio broadcasts on CD.  This performance is one of the latter,  originally heard April 19, 2003.

The Rake’s Progress has one of the greatest operatic pedigrees of all time.  It was inspired by a series of William Hogarth engravings that Igor Stravinsky saw in 1947.  The libretto was written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.  The opera premiered in Venice in 1951 with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Anne Truelove and Robert Rounseville (“His name is Mr. Snow…”) as Tom Rakewell.  The US premiere was at the Metropolitan Opera with Fritz Reiner conducting a George Balanchine production starring the great Hilde Gueden as Anne Truelove. 

Stravinsky composed a score that can be described as “20th century Mozart” and it requires the same high standard of precision from singers, conductors and orchestras.  I don’t think it’s an accident that the average cast for The Rake’s Progress could also jump into Le nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte or Don Giovanni.  This broadcast was no exception.  With the possible exception of Stephanie Blythe, all the leads have spent a significant portion of their careers singing Mozart.

Still, I have to say I’m puzzled by the choice to include this 2003 broadcast rather than the far superior 1998 broadcast which was also conducted by Maestro Levine.  With one major exception the cast is essentially the same, but that exception is pretty major.  And there are other differences that I think make the earlier broadcast the clear choice.

The major cast change is in the title character. Paul Groves sings Tom Rakewell on this CD, while Jerry Hadley was the Tom in 1998.  For me there is no comparison.  Hadley’s career had its ups and downs but his Tom Rakewell stands as one of the most beautifully sung, compellingly acted performances I have ever seen.  Groves is perfectly serviceable here, but he is simply not in Hadley’s league.

Though light-ish for the part, Dawn Upshaw was a wonderful Anne Truelove.  The directness and simplicity of her performing, not to mention the beautiful purity of her singing, were exactly right for the innocent Anne.  All of that is captured on the 1998 broadcast.  Though much of what she does is still lovely, by 2003 she sounds taxed and frayed around the edges, with an intrusive vibrato creeping in during the score’s more dramatic moments.

Samuel Ramey is the sinister Nick Shadow in both performances and sounds great in both performances.  The possessor of a remarkable set of pipes, a rock solid technique, and great personal magnetism, Ramey has maintained an very high standard in a wide variety of roles during his 25+ year career.  My only quibble is that I sometimes find his singing a little square and unimaginative.  I think this part would have benefited from a more grace, elan and subtlety.  But like I said, he’s great and I quibble.

La Blythe as Baba the Turk goes for broke and sounds terrific on both broadcasts.  Sadly, as with Deborah Voigt on the 1994 Elektra DVD included in this set, I notice a rather marked deterioration in Blythe’s vocalism, particularly the top, since this broadcast.

Dean Peterson was a perfectly serviceable Trulove in 2003, but David Pittsinger was far superior in 1998.  The ubiquitous Jane Shaulis is Mother Goose on both broadcasts, sounding marginally fresher and sturdier in 1998.

The chorus is a vital part of both the musical structure and the dramatic narrative in The Rake’s Progress, and the contributions of the excellent Met Chorus should not go unremarked. But the real stars of the 2003 broadcast are Levine and the Met Orchestra.  Levine clearly loves this music and the players respond with a performance of great lyricism, beauty, and clarity.