1. W.H. Auden’s libretto is one of the 20th century’s best. He was already one of the world’s greatest English-language poets when W.H. Auden was tapped by Igor Stravinsky to write a libretto for a brand-new opera. The subject? The Rake’s Progress (1732-33), the series of eight paintings and engravings by William Hogarth that depicts the coming-into-wealth and descent into dissolution of a young man, who ends his days penniless and raving in the madhouse. Auden (working with Chester Kallman) fashioned a witty and poetically viable text, clearly inspired by the sentimental comedies of the 1700s (with plenty of Restoration satire thrown in). If, like me, you’re a supporter of opera in English, Rake is a rare case when it’s done well.
2. Stephanie Blythe’s Baba the Turk is a campy hoot. Easily the most flamboyant role in the opera, Baba the Turk is a bearded lady who has fascinated princes and potentates the world over. The character attracts the attention of Tom Rakewell (tenor Paul Appleby) who, under the demonic influence of servant-tempter Nick Shadow (baritone Gerald Finley) decides impulsively to marry her. Mezzo superstar Blythe (pictured above) makes a tidy meal of the role, not letting any stray hairs get in the way of her shining, soaring voice. With impeccable phrasing and terrific humor, she cuts through the denser parts of Stravinsky’s thorny, jagged orchestrations.
3. It’s Igor Stravinsky’s only full-length opera. Although he wrote theatrical works for voice with The Nightingale, Oedipus Rex, The Soldier’s Story and others, The Rake's Progress (which had its 1951 world premiere in Venice) was Stravinsky’s ambitious goal to write a full-length work of Mozartian dazzle and romance (akin to Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s achievement with Der Rosenkavalier). Stravinsky was writing at the end of his so-called “neoclassical” period, marked by an interest in mythological themes and music that embraced architectural balance and elegance. If you irrationally expect most 20th-century classical music to sound like dissonant horror-movie stuff, this rapturous and mysterious score will cure you.
4. Paul Appleby’s star continues to rise. If you saw Nico Muhly’s Two Boys a couple seasons ago, you’ll know that this American singer has a youthful aspect and a shimmering tenor of steel. He gets to show his comic chops as the pleasure-seeking (if conscience-stricken) Tom Rakewell, and also breaks your heart in the final scene, where Tom languishes helplessly among the mad. We can’t wait to see his Belmonte next season when the Met brings back Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
5. You may not see it again for another decade—if ever. This is where we get to less-than-stellar aspects of the Met’s Rake—the production itself. Jonathan Miller’s staging lifts Rake out of the 18th-century setting and plunks it down more or less in the period in which it was written—postwar England or America (which is not really clear). This means a drab, Edward Hopper-looking landscape, unrelieved by Hogarthian grotesquerie, sumptuous wealth or much-needed comic relief. A dry and repressed Rake is almost perverse. Most noteworthy is how clunky the transitions are—several “brief pauses” after intermission to change the set. These breaks disperse the dramatic tension and flow. Here’s hoping general manager Peter Gelb finds a new production that respects the period (or at least uses anachronism in an evocative way) and mines visual and physical comedy within the framework of a tight, fluid scenic concept. Otherwise this dissolute cad’s progress can look more like a sludgy regress.
There's only one more performance of The Rake's Progress this season—Saturday at 1pm. Details and tickets here.