The Rake's Progress
Trulove: I. Kovacs
Anne: J. Zhang
Tom: M. Guadagnini
Nick: A. Svab
Mother Goose: M. Storti
Baba the Turk: E. Zilio
Sellem: P. Barbacini
Conductor: B. Campanella
Stage director: J. Cox
Torino, Teatro Regio
Since its premiere at Teatro La Fenice in 1951, The Rake's Progress has had a rather happy existence. Unlike most contemporary operas, this one has received numerous productions, often with excellent casts, and by now has a guaranteed permanent place in the operatic repertory. The idea for the subject came from an exhibit of William Hogarth prints that Igor Stravinsky saw in Chicago. Working with librettists W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, the ussian expatriate composer fashioned a tale combining moral depravation and desperate love out of Hogarth's eight scenes grouped under the same name that would be used for the new opera. Together, they fashioned a work that is usually classified as "neo-classic", a term that requires a bit of qualification. Although the visual arts had passed through a style that goes by that name in the period that began with the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, music had no such ancient models to imitate. Instead the music of the late eighteenth century, specifically Mozart and Haydn, was taken by the twentieth century as the "classic" period.
Listening to a good production of this work-and the run just finished at the Teatro Regio was certainly in that category-one is hard put to place the musical idiom. On the one hand, the timbre of the harpsichord (the composer's original intention rather than the piano that is frequently heard) has the connotation of the baroque period. Then, too, David Hockney's sets and costumes of eighteenth-century English anchor the production roughly in the era of Handel. (On loan to Turin from Glyndebourne Festival Opera, they have been seen and reproduced so frequently that they have become the standard against which other versions are measured.) The Auden/Kallman plot strongly parallels aspects of Don Giovanni, especially the graveyard scene, epilogue and the character of Anne Truelove. Also the compactness of each scene with subdivision into numbers is at a minimum pre-Wager.
No one would mistake this for an eighteenth-century work, however. There is a certain visual clutter onstage from the supervivid characterizations and fantastic characters that appear in the plot. In spite of the leanness of sound, an expanded orchestra offers coloration possibilities well beyond the scope of pre-Romantic music. Most of all, the emotional distance that The Rake's Progress puts between the characters and audience is the opposite of humanist poetic notions of affect, which presupposes a direct connection between the actions onstage and the viewer's sympathies.
Most of the critical attention that the opera has garnered has gravitated toward the musical end, but surely Auden and Kallman's libretto is the more original component. Their thorough knowledge of the English tradition enabled them to combine the pithiness of Pope with the moral explicitness of
Protestant hymns. Fashioning a workable and engaging plot out of Hogarth's visual suggestions is comparable to the achievement of the Aïda librettists that worked from a brief sketch.
For his part Stravinsky combined a sophisticated take on Western music with subtle references to the past, in his typically eclectic fashion. Some aspects reveal themselves better in study of the score than in hearing it in person. Playing with tempi during many references to time in the libretto and the lack of harmonic ground for Tom's aria "Here I stand" are but two examples. Hearing the bittersweet sounds of Rake, it is hard to imaging that Stravinsky was not influenced by Benjamin Britten's orchestral efforts, but Ariadne auf Naxos (a much earlier twentieth-century recreation of eighteenth-century mood) may also have played a part in developing his concept. This opera was essentially a dead end in Stravinsky's oeuvre, but a recent imitator in concept if not musical style has found some measure of acceptance-John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles.
The story line can be quickly summarized. Tom Rakewell is brusquely interrupted in the country garden of his betrothed Anne Truelove with news that he has inherited handsomely from an unknown relative. Off he goes to London and under valet Nick Shadow's tutelage Tom buys an expensive house and explores the seamier sites at Mother Goose's whorehouse. Nick advises Tom to marry the bearded Baba the Turk to ensure notoriety, but the affair ends dismally, and Tom's possessions must be auctioned off to pay for his excesses. Nick now demands his year's wages-Tom's soul-but allows the outcome to be decided by a card game. Tom miraculously guesses right three times and will remain alive, but Nick spirit off Tom's sanity. Anne finds Tom in the insane asylum, and bids him farewell. A snappy epilogue leaves an ambiguous moral to the tale.
Although this was the last in a run of eight performances, energy onstage and in the pit never flagged. The weekday afternoon curtain time appears to be popular, given the lively near-capacity audience that was present. Three substitutions from the first cast by younger artists proved workable. Jialin Zhang was a sympathetic Anne Trulove, even if her singing at rehearsal volume and restrained action was too reserved for a production like this. Because of his relative youth, Mirko Guadagnini proved more onvincing as Tom Rakewell than have some more senior singers. As his stage presence develops, he should prove a valuable artist. Alessandro Svab also acquitted himself well as Tom's nemesis Nick Shadow. The Rake's Progress has two principal character parts that enable singing actresses to shine: Mother Goose (an amusing Milena Storti) but principally Baba the Turk, a marvelous vehicle for Elena Zilio. The Teatro Regio orchestra sounded polished under bel canto specialist Bruno Campanella's direction. The strongest impression derives from the classic production directed by John Cox with sets and costumes by David Hockney. Cox's animated stage one-ups even Hogarth's overactive images, while Hockney mines the illustrator's other works to pile on amusing detail.
This was the opening production for the 1999-2000 season, appropriately weighted toward major works of the twentieth century.