Arts & Events

Merola Opera Performs Stravinsky’s THE RAKE’S PROGRESS

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 10, 2018 - 04:37:00 PM

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which premiered in 1951, occupies a unique place in the composer’s career and, far more importantly, also in the history of opera and literature. In Stravinsky’s career, The Rake’s Progress marks the culmination and end-point of the composer’s neo-classical style. We’ll deal with that aspect of it shortly. Where literary history and opera history are concerned, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress occupies a very problematic, and I would even say, precarious place. Making reference as it does to Mozart’s Don Giovanni as well as to Goethe’s Faust, to mention only the most important of this work’s prestigious antecedents, Stravinsky‘s The Rake’s Progress audaciously invites comparison with two of the most profound works in western culture. In spite of a libretto intelligently fashioned by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, The Rake’s Progress comes off very badly in such an exalted context. 

The reasons for this are twofold. Stylistically, in The Rake’s Progress Stravinsky has reverted to a Mozartian 18th century formula of operatic conventions. In fact, not only Mozart’s music is invoked, but also that of earlier composers such as Monteverdi, Handel, and Pergolesi, as well as the music of later composers such as Rossini and Donizetti. In his own neo-classical vernacular, Stravinsky has made of The Rake’s Progress a veritable history of opera. This could be interesting; but it could also deteriorate into mere pastiche. (That this doesn’t quite happen, though it comes dangerously close, is a testament to Stravinsky’s ability to find his own voice in whatever musical style he chooses.) However, the second reason why I find The Rake’s Progress disappointing is that it comes perilously close to reducing to parody the major issues raised so eloquently, even tragically, by Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Goethe’s Faust.  

Put simply and straightforwardly, I can’t take Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress the slightest bit seriously in the way the composer treats the major issues first set forth by Mozart and Goethe. Where Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a heroic archetype of the male seducer, Stravinsky’s Tom Rakewell is, as Baba the Turk puts it, “a mere shuttle-head.” Where Goethe’s Mephistopheles is a heroic archetype of evil posing as good, Stravinsky’s Nick Shadow is, well, a mere shadow of the far more heroic original. And if you compare Tom Rakewell with Goethe’s Faust, well, there is no comparison. In The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky is content to preside smugly and sardonically over a degraded version of the human issues explored so profoundly by Mozart and Goethe. To me, there’s a sardonic nihilism behind Stravinsky’s every gesture in The Rake’s Progress. I can’t take any of it seriously; and both musically and dramatically I find it long-winded (at a length of nearly three hours), and quite tedious.  

That much said, this Merola production, which opened Thursday, August 3, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and closes Saturday at 2:00 pm, August 5, at the same venue, gets A for effort. The Merola cast is good, led by the principals – tenor Christopher Oglesby as Tom Rakewell, soprano Meigui Zhang as Anne Trulove, and baritone Jacob Scharfman as Nick Shadow. Oglesby was especially convincing when, near the opera’s end, his Tom Rakewell is confined in an insane asylum but imagines himself as Adonis awaiting his Venus. Megui Zhang as Anne Trulove was bright-voiced throughout, nailing her high C at the close of her Act I cabaletta, and singing beautifully her lullaby to the dying Tom accompanied by a solo flute in Act II. Jacob Scharfman was sinister throughout, vocally maneuvering amidst Stravinsky’s violently dissonant arpeggios every time his Nick Shadow appeared and deviously granted Tom’s naïve expression of a wish.  

The secondary roles are also well delineated, beginning with bass-baritone Ted Allen Pickell’s punctilious Father Trulove, and proceeding through mezzo-soprano Alexandra Urquiola’s ribald portrayal of Mother Goose, the madam of a brothel; mezzo-soprano Anne McGuire’s Baba the Turk, a bearded lady Tom weds to demonstrate his freedom from all conventions; and tenor Addison Marlor’s Sellem, the glib Auctioneer. However, it must be noted that all of these characters, including even the principals, are mere stick-figures. They are Stravinsky’s straw men and women in a parody he elaborates relentlessly throughout this opera.  

The parodic element is most clearly revealed in the auction scene, in which Stravinsky’s raucous, uncouth music is a perfect vehicle for Baba the Turk’s dismissal of the multitude of buyers as “the pigs of plunder.” In the auction scene, as throughout this opera, director Robin Guarino emphasized the parodic nature of this entire endeavor. Conductor Mark Morash did yeoman duty leading the orchestra in presenting as fine an account of this neo-classical score as one might hope for, including its use of the harpsichord. Yet, nothing, I repeat, nothing, in my opinion, succeeds in raising Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress above the level of a mildly interesting, ultimately tedious, parody. In fact, it comes dangerously close to being a farce. As none other than Karl Marx pithily observed, “When history repeats itself, what first occurred as tragedy returns as farce.”