I finally get to complete my personal operatic Top Ten this week with Igor Stravinsky’s only full-length opera, The Rake’s Progress. Daniele Gatti leads a 2006 performance with the forces of Santa Cecilia starring Rainer Trost, James Morris, and Ellie Dehn.
My cheap Italian coffee press shattered in my hand yesterday morning so this will be somewhat abbreviated and error-filled due to excessive bandaging.
What do you need to know about this opera if you don’t already know it? Tom Rakewell, a regular dude, sells his soul to the devil (a/k/a Nick Shadow) to become rich and famous, abandoning his true love, Anne Truelove. In his progression to insanity, he manages to get out of the contract but first discovers love at Mother Goose’s whorehouse, marries the famous bearded lady Baba the Turk, and is coerced into believing he’s invented a machine that turns stones into bread. After his sad end at Bedlam, we get a frothy Epilogue in front of the curtain reminding us that “For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do.”
If you’re scared of Stravinsky, don’t be! The opera is written in neoclassic style with the traditional formula of recitatives, arias, ensembles, and choruses. The score, which remains tonal, is one delight followed by another, has a coloratura cabaletta capped with a high C for the soprano, and recitatives accompanied by harpsichord.
So it’s just a particularly exceptional mid-20th century opera by a Russian-born composer who flourished in France and America inspired by a viewing of the titular paintings and engravings by William Hogarth at a museum in Chicago in 1947. The libretto is by the on-again-off-again couple of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
The premiere, conducted by the composer, was at Teatro La Fenice in 1951 with a cast starring Robert Rounseville, an American tenor known more for musicals and operetta; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a German soprano with dubious political beliefs; Otakar Kraus, a Prague-born baritone; and Jennie Tourel, a Russian-born Jewish-American mezzo.
The opera made its way to Paris in 1952 and the Met the following year in a production under Stravinsky’s supervision led by Fritz Reiner and directed by George Balanchine. The premiere was broadcast (available on Sirius) and stars Eugene Conley, Hilde Güden, Mack Harrell, and Blanche Thebom. Except for Horace Armistead’s designs and Güden’s unintelligible attempt at English, the critics were universally ecstatic.
The opera played eight times over two seasons and then disappeared until 1997, and till now has received only 26 Met performances.
It was a bigger success at the first season by the Santa Fe Opera in 1957 where it played often, again under Stravinsky’s supervision, through 1963. Ingmar Bergman directed it in Stockholm in 1963.
My introduction to it (live) came through the import by New York City Opera of the now-legendary 1975 Glyndebourne production by John Cox with unforgettable sets by David Hockney. I attended more performances of this production than I can count, both at the New York State Theater and by the San Francisco Opera.
My most recent encounter with the Devil was at Theater an der Wien’s 2013 revival of Martin Kusej’s X-rated 2008 production (originally conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt) with Toby Spence, Bo Skovhus, and Anne Sophie von Otter as a scene-stealing Baba, decorated with a strap-on dildo.
This week’s Tom Rakewell is German tenor Rainer Trost, who sang a few Don Ottavios at the Met in 2003, but has been on the roster of Wiener Staatsoper for 19 seasons, primarily as a Mozart specialist, singing all four mature Mozart tenor roles. He is a frequent guest at Theater an der Wien and Europe’s major houses and has established himself as one of my favorites in his Fach.
Ellie Dehn sang Anne Truelove’s aria and cabaletta at the Met’s 2005 National Council Grand Finals Concert, and officially debuted in Satyagraha in 2008. She has since sung Musetta and Donna Elvira with the company.
British born and educated mezzo Sarah Fulgoni has sung at Covent Garden, La Scala, Salzburg, and created the title role in Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin at the Dallas Opera. The Daily Telegraph referred to her as “the Carmen of the decade,” her signature role which she has sung on three continents.
James Morris assumes a role which had previously been the property of Samuel Ramey. If you don’t know James Morris by now, I wouldn’t know where to begin…