Cher Public

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.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Too right about Blythe, unfortunately. I heard a fair bit of her earlier work live and on recording, so I was pretty shocked when I went to see her Jezibaba in the Met Rusalka and heard what a decline there had been in her voice, particularly at the top end, impressive though it still is. It’s fairly obvious to me that Amneris (and probably Azucena) is a mistake for her -- she’s a much lower voice than the score calls for. Ulrica and Quickly should be her only Verdi roles, and she needs to think of herself as more of a contralto or mezzo-contralto to halt the deterioration in the quality of her instrument.

    • MontyNostry

      Blythe’s Azucena at Covent Garden (2007, I think) was quite magnificent; I hadn’t been a fan before I experienced her live, since her sound doesn’t seem to record especially well. In Trovatore she didn’t take the optional top C, but I don’t remember any sense of discomfort in the higher regions of the role, though obviously as a whole it sits lower than Amneris. What remains with me was the amplitude of the sound — she sounded as if she had a mike hidden down her capacious bazoom. She’s also a singer who knows how to make use of stillness on stage, which I always admire.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Magnificent it may have been, and had she not taken on Amneris too, she might not be exhibiting this decline. But really, the Jezibaba was in March 2009, and I’m not the only person who noticed a coarseness up top that was not previously there.

        Her Covent Garden Ulrica was absolutely splendid and had all the qualities you describe. I’ve also really enjoyed her as Juno in the ROH Semele, and in Rodelinda at the Met.

      • porcamiseria

        The top C for Azucena is not optional. Verdi wrote it. There is no ‘oppure’ for the note. Blythe chose not to sing the note.
        Shirley Verrett used to interpolate an incredible high C at the end of the Azucena/Di Luna duet that was incredible.
        A very popular Carmen, who has now essayed the role of Azucena, interpolates the entire French ending of Trovatore, translated into Italian, to avoid having to sing the final B-flat on ‘MA-dre.’

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          Where is this high c for Azucena which is variously described as optional or not? Trov is one score I’ve really never looked at, although I know it well aurally.

          And come on, Porcamiseria, name names. Who is she?

        • Arianna a Nasso

          CK @ Act 2, scene 1 in a cadenza on “spremi” in “Perigliarti ancor languente”

  • Nerva Nelli

    Tom Rakewell did indeed show Jerry Hadley at his best--pretty close to perfection when I saw him do it in San Francisco in 1988 ( w/Susan Patterson and Our Own William Shimell, who had a voice then).

    • MontyNostry

      To judge by his recent Don Alfonso at Covent Garden (in Dr Miller’s yawn-inducing production), Shimell hasn’t got much of a voice any more. But he looks good and acts well. Some rather Anglo pronunciation in Italian, though.

      • The Vicar of John Wakefield

        In the best traditions of John Brownlee!

      • armerjacquino

        He’s a film star now, of course.

        • MontyNostry

          Juliette Binoche was talking about the film on Front Row this evening on Radio 4.

        • Speaking of film stars…

    • Nerva Nelli

      What’s next… Patrice Munsel as Nellie Melba????

  • All-Knowing Seashell

    The ravages of alcohol abuse had done such a number on Hadley’s cords by 2003 that his Rakewell would have been hopelessly beyond the pale at that juncture. If you heard his later Met performances in the “Gatsby” revival, or as Sam Polk in “Susannah,” you’d understand why the management felt that Rakewell needed to be cast differently for this go-round. Sad, because Rakewell had once been an ideal role for him (he WAS Tom Rakewell).

    Truth is, however, Upshaw was never very good in this production. Even when it was new, she was barely hanging on by a thread vocally, and never squarely nailed the C at the end of her aria. But by the revival, her voice was in a shambles. Purity of tone and intonation are key in Stravinsky, and her croony, worn, out-of-tune contribution here is a real blight, reminiscent of late-period Moffo.

    • She might never have been any good at the part at the Met (which is something I’ll never know, so I’ll take your word for it), but this clip of her singing Anne’s big scene in 1992 (Aix) seems rather well-done to me.

    • All-Knowing Seashell

      I don’t deny that Upshaw sang this role beautifully in her youthful, too-brief prime. Her commercial CD of it is very fine. In fact, as with Hadley’s Tom earlier in her career, Anne was one of Upshaw’s best roles. But, like a lot of lighter lyrics, when the goods spoiled, they did so quickly and irreversibly.

      Regarding Blythe, she’s never been by nature the most diligent or facile musician, but her results have always been best when she kept her nose to the grindstone. When this production of “Rake” was new, and she covered Graves for the first run and sang Baba, including the b’cast, later in the season, she was still living in NYC, and working with her teacher and an excellent coach every week or two, sometimes more, above and beyond coachings by the Met music staff. Her Baba was musically more incisive--and much more intelligible--than Graves’. By 2003, she had moved to the Poconos, and was receiving lessons and coachings much more sporadically. Same holds true today, and I maintain that you can hear the difference.

  • papopera

    Oh damn, I’m getting sooooo old. I was at the Met in February 1953 for Rake’s with Gueden and Conley. Don’t remember the Devil. The Baba was Thebom I think. Unprepared, I was expecting great melodious Stravinsky à l’Oiseau de Feu ou à la Petroushka. But when I heard that score I loathed it, found it very aggravating. However throughout all those years, I’ve learned to listen to it and now adore that work.

    • Nerva Nelli

      “The Baba was Thebom”

      • stevey

        Nerva, I’ve always wondered… the link to the bike……. what the hell is up it???

        • stevey

          (that should be ‘with it’, of course…)


          Here we go again — a delightful story and one well worth repeating, of course. It happened back in the 1940’s. A fan was speaking to Leonard Bernstein about the conducting wizardry of Dmitri Mitropoulos. Well, Lennie stood it for just about as long as he could, but then his rapier wit just got the better of him, and he said, “He’s a faggot, ya know.” Ever since then, it’s been a code word, but usually rhyme-slang. Neil Patrick Harris. “Crag, ya know.” Blanche Thebom. “Mike, ya know.” Rose O’Donnell. “Hike, ya know.” Leontyne Price. “Digger, ya know.” Richard Tucker. “Who, ya know.” Just our little way of making sure that societal divisions are kept in place.

        • CruzSF

          Betsy’s whole paragraph should become a tag.

        • Nerva Nelli

          Ethel Merman, said to a stagehand “accidentally” of Mary Martin into a live mike (ya know) before a Carnegie crowd.

      • Turk, ya know.

        • Nerva Nelli

          Shrike, ya know.

        • saintcowboy

          Price said “Digger you know?” Are u sure?

  • bob villa

    Well, i was at a performance of this production in 2003, and it remains the best night of opera that i have ever seen. I thought Paul groves sang his way into each one of our hearts, and yes Ms. Upshaw has limits, but in the theater she was too compelling as a stage persona to be concerned with. And Stephanie Blythe blew the roof off the joint, so to speak.

  • LittleMasterMiles

    When I saw it in 2003 Blythe delivered her exit line “The next time you see Baba, you will Pay!,” with great authority, and then spun around to storm quickly out the door… and very nearly stormed directly into the wall, having been a few feet downstage from her mark. She caught herself just in time (and it’s a lot to catch, if you know what I mean), flashed a quick “silly me” smile at the audience, and headed out the door. It got a huge appreciative laugh.


    Great review Wendy. Rake is one of my ABSOLUTE favorite operas. I was introduced to it by a freind who essaying the role of Anne around 1996 or so. After seeing the 1998 performance I went back for the final 3 performances I was so taken away by this opera. Hadley was indeed as perfect a Tom Rakewell that you could imagine. I think maybe because Denyce Graves did such a wretched job with Baba that they went with the production with Blythe. I have no proof of this of course, but upon revisiting 3 performances of the opera in 2003 I kept wishing she could have been in the 1998 cast. I know that we sometimes disparage Jane Shaulis on this site, but she TURNS OUT the role of Mother Goose. Well I am glad to see that at least one of the productions made it into the dvd package. Though I wish that they had released a testament to Hadley’s artistry. Paul Groves? Meh…

  • saintcowboy

    Yes sir, a “neat” opera- thanks for the review. I knew Paul Groves when- he was singing Offenbach with the LSU opera (1987)- and Upshaw, SIR, Mr. Negative comment above, deserves only positive comments, please and thank you… who would you rather in the role?

    • Buster

      Love Upshaw, but it is a pity Sylvia McNair never sang it at the Met. I have always thought Anne, and Rosina in The Ghosts of Versailles, were her best roles.

  • Henry Holland

    Britten: I like everything about the Rake’s Progress except the music.

    • roseducor

      Give me Rake’s Progress any day, I’ll pass on the arid and closety operas of BB (well, except Peter Grimes).

      • Henry Holland

        To each his own, I wouldn’t trade every note Stravinsky wrote (except for The Firebird) for any random scene in Billy Budd, Gloriana, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream or Death in Venice. Arid? God, that word describes Stravinsky’s music perfectly, all that ghastly bone dry neo-classical stuff --Boulez was properly scathing about it-- and huge bores like A Symphony of Psalms.

        • manou

          You would or you wouldn’t?

      • roseducor

        As Adorno said:

        “Das Medizin vom einen ist die Gift vom anderen”

    • Nerva Nelli

      Agree with you 100%!

      There are several candidates around Id much rather hear as Anne than Dawn: Ellie Dehn (who has sung it), Susannah Philips, Our Own Kate Royal…

      • Uninvolved Bystander

        Ellie was a student at AVA and who sang “No word from Tom” in a master class with Thomas Allen. After she sang he went up to her, started to say something, stopped and then turned to the audience and said that there wasn’t anything to criticize. It was absolutely perfect.