BLO's "Rake's Progress": From Bedchamber to Brothel to Bedlam; No, Wait!

Jane Eaglen & Ben Bliss in "The Rake's Progress"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It's rare in the operatic world to experience all of the creative stars (and not just those seen on stage) coming together in perfect harmony (and not just the musical kind) to produce a work that succeeds on every level to the extent that the Boston Lyric Opera does with their current production of The Rake's Progress. Composed by Igor Stravinsky with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, this version is performed in English with English surtitles under Stage Director Allegra Libonati. Based loosely on paintings and engravings by Hogarth, it's the familiar tale of what risks one takes in bargaining with the Devil. First performed in Venice in 1951, it was given its American premiere by the Metropolitan Opera in 1953. One could fill volumes with information regarding its reception, history, and significance in the canon, but that's already been done. What hasn't been done, at least in our city and in our time, is the uncanny achievement of such a thoroughly transporting and delightfully bawdy time; not since the Marx Brothers has there been such an ingeniously clever night at the opera.

Unlike many other relatively lengthy operas, this work, while it runs almost three hours, lends itself to a somewhat succinct synopsis. In their pastoral countryside, Tom Rakewell (tenor Ben Bliss) and Anne Trulove (soprano Anya Matanovic) celebrate their mutual love, and the job offered him by her father Trulove (baritone David Cushing), though Tom wants a quicker and easier path to fortune. Tom's friend Nick Shadow (bass Kevin Burdette) arrives with news that Tom has inherited a fortune from an uncle unknown to him. Suggesting he serve Tom for a year and a day, Shadow takes him to London where he introduces him to the brothel run by “Mother Goose” (soprano Jane Eaglen). In his new house, Tom swiftly becomes bored, leading Shadow to suggest he meet the bearded lady, Baba the Turk (mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson). Anne arrives to find that he and Baba have been married. Bored again, Tom is told by Shadow about a machine that can turn stone into bread. When this business fails, after Anne arrives to find Tom's house under bankruptcy auction by the maniac auctioneer Sellem (tenor Jon Jurgens in drag), Tom is brought by Shadow to a cemetery, a year and a day after their agreement, disclosing that Tom must pay with his soul to Shadow. Shadow, to no one's surprise, turns out to be the Devil, who relents, offering Tom escape via a card game. Tom wins, but Shadow curses him with a life of madness. Anne arrives again (this woman does a lot of arriving) and, hearing her voice, Tom regains his love for her as Shadow sinks into the ground. Tom has survived, but at a price. He is sent to Bedlam under the supervision of the Keeper of the Madhouse (bass Simon Dyer). Anne arrives yet again to find there is little she can do for him. She is persuaded by her father to abandon Tom to his fate, and he dies. In an epilogue/curtain call, all the characters return to deliver the moral of this tale of progress from bed chamber to brothel to Bedlam. Something about idle hands and all that.

It should be noted that in this production, the largely mute role of Stravinsky himself is played by ballet dancer Yury Yanowsky, who also serves as Movement Director. His is an almost constant presence on the stage, frequently (but never intrusively) nudging the story along. He gets to deliver but one line: “No, wait!” (with permission from the Stravinsky estate). It's a nice touch in a production full of them, starting with the lead singers. Bliss is aptly named, as his singing is ubiquitously blissful (he's on stage for virtually the entire piece). He's matched by a lovely-voiced Matanovic, who also has a lot to deliver and does so beautifully. Burdette is charmingly insidious, Cushing is the perfect paterfamilias in acting and singing, and Eaglen and Johnson are each given scene-stealing turns. The rest of the cast, and the very busy BLO Chorus (one counted at least four costume changes they all managed to accomplish without missing a beat), are superb. (Down to the madhouse inmates' attire, each referencing a different Stravinsky work).

On the creative end, the production was meticulously Conducted by David Angus, with awe-inspiring Set Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, inventive Costume Design by John Conklin and Neil Fortin, expert Lighting Design by Mark Stanley, and a clever tongue-in-cheek use of Magic Designer Christopher Rose, with the BLO Chorus led by Chorus Master Michelle Alexander.

Libonati has stated elsewhere that the work has “morality play trappings, (but with) humans going through incredibly complex emotions”. Stravinsky was at the summit of his neoclassical phase, shortly thereafter turning to his unique adaptation of the twelve-tone technique for the rest of his career. As Tom puts it at one point: “Vary the song, O London, change!/Disband your notes and let them range”. It's one of Stravinsky's most accessible works, though some find it filled with “wrong notes”. There are no wrong notes in this production, however. It may be some time before we get to enjoy such consummate expertise again.

No, wait!

Next up: BLO's final production of the season: "The Marriage of Figaro" April 28, 30; May 3, 5 & 7.
Also due soon: Odyssey Opera Boston presents "The Importance of Being Earnest" Mar. 17 & 18.
And later: "Gay Shorts", seven short plays by local playwright George Smart, Mar. 30, 31 & April 1.

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