13 June 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Igor Stravinsky — THE RAKE’S PROGRESS (B. Bliss, G. Schultz, C. Van Horn, R. Bryce-Davis, J. Creswell, E. Gigliotti, T. Stevenson, C. Job; The Metropolitan Opera, 7 June 2022)

IN REVIEW: tenor BEN BLISS as Tom Rakewell in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]IGOR FYODOROVICH STRAVINSKY (1882 – 1971): The Rake’s ProgressBen Bliss (Tom Rakewell), Golda Schultz (Anne Trulove), Christian Van Horn (Nick Shadow), Raehann Bryce-Davis (Baba the Turk), James Creswell (Trulove), Eve Gigliotti (Mother Goose), Tony Stevenson (Sellem), Christopher Job (Keeper of the Madhouse); Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Susanna Mälkki, conductor [Sir Jonathan Miller, production; J. Knighten Smit, revival stage director; Peter J. Davison, set designer; Judy Levin, costume designer; Jennifer Tipton, lighting designer; The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City, USA; Tuesday, 7 June 2022]

In an age in which under-explored niches of opera’s five-century history are regularly reassessed and rejuvenated, why is a composer whose music is so often played in the world’s concert halls a maddeningly infrequent guest in opera houses? Fifty-one years after his death, Igor Stravinsky’s still-piquant symphonic and ballet scores continue to be programmed by many orchestras, but his music for the lyric stage, though widely admired and much lauded for its stylistic variety and innovation, is familiar to audiences deluged by Verdi and Puccini by reputation rather than by experience. The operas Le rossignol, Œdipus rex, and The Rake’s Progress are among Stravinsky’s most accessible works, yet, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, by which company La bohème has been performed more than 1,300 times since 1900, Le rossignol and Œdipus rex have been heard fewer than three dozen times—and not since 2004.

The Rake’s Progress has fared no better since reaching the MET stage in 1953, only two years after the opera’s world première at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, having amassed only twenty-six performances at the MET prior to the 2021 – 2022 Season’s run of four performances. That the piece has been featured in six MET seasons demonstrates that it is considered worthy of the company, but the paucity of shows in each of those seasons suggests that the opera is not trusted to appeal to ticket purchasers. Typically, such lack of faith in a work’s commercial viability can be attributed to a story that does not resonate with audiences, a poorly-written libretto, or an unimaginative score; or to a debilitating combination of these factors.

Based upon a series of much-studied Eighteenth-Century images by artist William Hogarth, whose bitingly satirical work scandalized and delighted Georgian England, Rake’s cautionary tale of the perils of foppish libertinism is perhaps more pertinent in 2022 than in Hogarth’s time or the period of the opera’s composition and first performances. Moreover, W. H. Auden’s and Chester Kallman’s libretto is of tremendously high literary and theatrical quality. The relative prevalence of its recurrence in the MET repertory discredits the notion that the score is undistinguished. Why, then, must a prospective listener nealy resort to emulating the work’s protagonist, Tom Rakewell, by making a Faustian bargain in order to witness a performance of The Rake’s Progress?

IN REVIEW: the cast of The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Sir Jonathan Miller's staging of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]The Truloves’ course ne’er did run smooth: the cast of The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Sir Jonathan Miller’s staging of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Premièred in the MET’s 1997 – 1998 Season, Sir Jonathan Miller’s staging of Rake’s Progress, refreshed in this revival by stage director J. Knighten Smit, substantiates the opera’s artistic value and proposes largely sensible solutions to its problems. Like their libretti for Hans Werner Henze’s Bassarids and Elegy for Young Lovers, Auden’s and Kallman’s text for Rake’s Progress is characterized by levels of linguistic sophistication and psychological depth that can doom an opera to tedium, a fate mostly thwarted by Stravinsky but not altogether avoided in Miller’s staging. Peter J. Davison’s and Judy Levin’s lush, earth-toned set and costume designs, resourcefully illuminated by Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, relocated the opera’s setting from Hanoverian London to a temporal environment reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age. The production’s decadence heightened the persuasiveness of the hedonism that lures Tom to his ruin, but the vital contrast with the austerity of the Truloves’ simpler existence was marginalized by the visual lavishness. Nevertheless, overcoming too-lengthy pauses during scene changes, the staging did not inhibit the singers’ abilities to create nuanced characterizations and universal emotions, and Smit’s efforts perceptibly strove to shift the production’s focus from the physical to the metaphysical aspects of the drama.

Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki made her MET début in 2016, leading the company premiére of her countrywoman Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin. The faculty for mastering complex rhythmic transitions and ensembles in which lapses in coordination between stage and pit can be catastrophic that guided her handling of Saariaho’s score also contributed notably to her pacing of The Rake’s Progress despite moments in which her speaking of Stravinsky’s musical language was strangely accented. The composer’s tempo markings are meticulously detailed in the autograph, but Mälkki was liberal in her observance of them. The music’s stylistic ambiguities, assimilating discordant modernity with melodious neoclassicism, were navigated adroitly, however, the conducting often grippingly majestic, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra employed each instrument’s unique sonorities to spotlight the intricacies of Stravinsky’s part writing. Embracing Mälkki’s emphasis on clarity of line, the orchestra’s musicians executed their demanding parts splendidly, their playing bristling with energy and excitement. Recalling the toccata in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the Prelude to Act One provided a suitably effervescent curtain raiser, and the Prelude to the second scene of Act Three established a disquieting mood.

Woodwinds were exceptionally impactful in both lyrical passages and in turbulent moments, but the brasses often seemed to be playing notes rather than music. Principal trumpeter David Krauss’s account of the hauntingly beautiful writing for his instrument in Act Two, redolent of the lovely obbligato in Ernesto’s scene in Act Two of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, was disappointingly phlegmatic. Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour accompanied the opera’s recitatives not as a vague sound emanating from the pit but as a participant in the characters’ conversations. The slightly harsh timbre of the 1964 William Dowd instrument, maintained by Dongsok Shin, was very effective in the graveyard scene, in which Vinikour’s playing was musically and dramatically dazzling. Throughout the evening, the depths of Mälkki’s connections with Stravinsky’s score and with the MET’s musical forces were apparent. These connections fostered an abiding sense of espousal of the piece’s distinctive harmonic language, poised between Mozart—Don Giovanni often peeks out of the pages of Act Two—and Reimann. This faith in the opera, manifested in every aspect of Mälkki’s conducting, yielded a performance that was as enlightening as it was entertaining.

Integral to the success of a number of recent productions, not least Sir David McVicar’s staging of Verdi’s Don Carlos, Donald Palumbo’s training of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus continues to effect refinement of the choristers’ singing, which in Rake’s Progress was sensational. Portraying the opera’s prostitutes, cads, and Bedlamites was surely a welcome change from the chorus’s typical assignments in the MET repertory. ‘With air commanding and weapons handy’ in Act One was powerfully sung, and the singers’ accounts of ‘Soon dawn will glitter,’ ‘How sad a song,’ and ‘The sun is bright’ were keenly differentiated but of equal musical integrity. Mälkki’s able handling of the ensemble in the second scene of Act Two allowed the choral singing to serve as the vocal foundation that Stravinsky undoubtedly intended it to be. After an eerie incantation of ‘Ruin, disaster, shame,’ the Bedlam dialogue, minuet, and mourning chorus in Act Three were performed with riveting immediacy, the chorus claiming a critical rôle in the opera’s dramatic arc.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor BEN BLISS as Tom Rakewell, bass-baritone CHRISTIAN VAN HORN as Nick Shadow, and mezzo-soprano EVE GIGLIOTTI as Mother Goose in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Luck be a lady tonight: (from left to right) tenor Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Nick Shadow, and mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti as Mother Goose in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

As the keeper of the madhouse and the aptly-named auctioneer Sellem, both of whom are heard only in Act Three, bass-baritone Christopher Job and tenor Tony Stevenson galvanized the scenes in which they appeared, their vocal acting animating these dynamic characters. Job voiced ‘There he is,’ identifying the deranged Tom, with understated compassion, as though this keeper was determined to preserve an outward show of aloofness. Stevenson delivered Sellem’s much-interrupted aria in the bidding scene, ‘Who hears me, knows me a man with value,’ obsequiously, limning the opportunistic man’s smarmy self-satisfaction.

Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti was an uncommonly glamorous Mother Goose, the rôle depicted in this production more as a virile seductress than as a debauched woman of a certain age. The voice seething with sensuality, there was slashing irony in Gigliotti’s arch query of ‘What is pleasure then?’ When she murmured ‘Away! Tonight I exercise my elder right,’ the full extent of the lady’s intentions was unmistakable. Like Bizet’s Carmen and Berg’s Lulu, Stravinsky’s Mother Goose benefits from portrayals that eschew cheap harlotry. Neither maternal nor flighty, Gigliotti’s attractively-sung Mother Goose was a woman unashamed of her adventurous sexual appetite.

Bass James Creswell’s Trulove reminded the audience that operatic fathers are not required to sound tired and wobbly. From his first note in Act One, Creswell’s voice was rousing and inviolably firm. In the trio with Anne and Tom, he sang ‘Oh, may a father’s prudent fears unfounded prove’ with paternal concern and doubt. The latter sentiment grew more prevalent when Tom unceremoniously refused the offer of a job procured for him by Trulove. First in the quartet and then in the terzettino with Anne and Tom, in which his account of ‘Fortune so swift and so easy’ possessed unusual gravitas, the bass declaimed Trulove’s words with textual and emotional clarity. Though his part in Act Three is small, he voiced ‘God is merciful and just’ in the duettino with Anne wifh affecting gentleness. His slow, quiet departure from the asylum as Tom lay insensate on the floor lent the scene devastating finality. Trulove’s lines in the epilogue were sung suavely. It is sometimes difficult to comprehend why Anne would hesitate to abandon her curmudgeonly father in order to follow Tom to London: Creswell’s stern but loving, wonderfully-sung Trulove made the impulse atypically credible.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano RAEHANN BRYCE-DAVIS as Baba the Turk in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Bearded beauty: mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis as Baba the Turk in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Making her MET début in this production, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis brought the iconic Baba the Turk to life with sultry tones and flamboyant comedic instincts. The bearded lady who becomes Tom’s wife is little more than a caricature in too many performances, but Bryce-Davis concentrated on the vulnerability that hides beyond the laughter. Her articulation of the recitative ‘My love, am I to remain in here forever?’ in Act Two introduced her Baba as a warm-hearted woman, but that warmth boiled into indignant ire in the trio with Anne and Tom, the mezzo-soprano exasperatedly lobbing ‘Who is it, pray, he prefers to me’ at the young lovers. Still, there was finesse in her articulation of ‘I have not run away, dear heart.’ Bryce-Davis sang ‘As I was saying, both brothers wore moustaches,’ Baba’s song ‘Come, sweet, come,’ and the aria ‘Scorned! Abused! Neglected! Baited!’ potently, her solid top A offsetting tones at the bottom of the range that were not ideally supported.

Though she is a character who is not often taken seriously by directors or audiences, Baba receives brutal treatment from Tom. Being auctioned as one of her husband’s material possessions in Act Three, when she hilariously resumed the rant begun before being silenced by Tom in the previous act, Bryce-Davis’s Baba sang ‘Sold! Annoyed!’ in a manner that was funny and fragile, the abandoned wife’s frustration disclosing seldom-admitted sincerity that permeated her heartfelt intoning of ‘You love him, seek to set him right’ in the duet with Anne. Bryce-Davis voiced ‘Let Baba warn the ladies’ in the epilogue ambivalently, offering both a personal admonition and an amusingly didactic lesson. Neither the English text nor the part’s tessitura was entirely comfortable for Bryce-Davis’s opulent voice, but her Baba was a marvelous portrayal.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone CHRISTIAN VAN HORN as Nick Shadow in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Out of the depths: bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Nick Shadow in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Acclaimed during the MET’s 2018 – 2019 Season for his portrayal of the eponymous antagonist in Boito’s Mefistofele, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn expanded his New York gallery of diabolical portraits with a sadistically charismatic interpretation of Stravinsky’s Nick Shadow. The malevolent character’s villainy was shrouded in Act One in irrepressible charm, Van Horn voicing ‘Fair lady, gracious gentlemen’ and Shadow’s insinuating words in the quartet with unstinting charisma and tonal luster. In the act’s second scene, there was mesmerizing softness in his singing of ‘Sweet dreams, my master.’ As Shadow’s hold on Tom tightened in Act Two, Van Horn’s vocalism grew darker, his accounts of ‘Come, master, observe the host of mankind’ and the aria ‘In youth the panting slave pursues the fair evasive dame’ in the brothel scene brilliant but foreboding. The duets with Tom received some of Van Horn’s most incisive singing of the evening, ‘Come, master, prepare your fate to dare’ enunciated with pointed enticement and ‘A word to all my friends’ given an edge of sarcasm. The bass-baritone’s innate theatricality shone during the Pantomime, this Shadow always seizing the spotlight.

Van Horn sang the ballad ‘If boys had wings and girls had stings’ in Act Three with feigned conviviality, cajoling Tom before Shadow’s evil identity was revealed in the graveyard scene, in which a momentary breech of ensemble was quickly rectified. Demanding Tom’s soul as payment for his services, Van Horn’s Shadow declared ‘A year and a day have passed away’ with petrifying directness. In the final battle with Tom, Van Horn growled ‘Let wish be thought’ with predatory ambivalence, Shadow maintaining a show of mock decency whilst already celebrating his victory over his hapless victim. The quarry slipping from his grasp, Shadow cried ‘I burn! I freeze!’ and condemned Tom to madness with demonic force, but the singer proclaimed that ‘Day in, day out, poor Shadow must do as he is bidden’ in the epilogue with ebullient humor. Shadow’s music ascends to a plethora of top Es, sung by Van Horn with minimal forcing and fatigue. The part’s range wholly in the voice, he had no need to resort to shouting and snarling. Rather, he sang Shadow’s music without exaggeration and rightly trusted Stravinsly’s music to unmask the wily fiend.

IN REVIEW: soprano GOLDA SCHULTZ as Anne Trulove (left) and tenor BEN BLISS as Tom Rakewell (right) in The Metropolitan Opera's 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]If boys had wings and girls had stings: soprano Golda Schultz as Anne Trulove (left) and tenor Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell (right) in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

The rôle of the pure-hearted Anne Trulove, courted but abandoned by Tom, was originated at La Fenice by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and first sung at the MET by Hilde Güden, a pair of singers who could hardly have been more different, vocally and temperamentally. Broadcast recordings do not permit listeners to meaningfully assess how Schwarzkopf’s and Güden’s singular voices projected in the acoustics of La Fenice and the old MET on Broadway, but, though it is an instrument of modest dimensions, soprano Golda Schultz’s voice glistened ravishingly in the house at Lincoln Center. The first moments of Anne’s duet with Tom in Act One marked the naïve but ardent young lady as the opera’s unwavering moral compass, the soprano suffusing ‘The woods are green’ and her lines in the quartet with girlish optimism. Singing ‘Farewell, for now my heart is with you’ in the duettino and ‘Heart, you are happy’ in the terzettino unaffectedly, Schultz touchingly conveyed Anne’s rectitude and the profundity of her love for Tom.

Audiences familiar with Rake’s Progress eagerly await the final scene of Act One, and Schultz’s performance justified the anticipation. Her distraught reading of the recitative ‘No word from Tom’ was followed by a dulcetly-phrased account of the aria ‘Quietly, night, oh! find him and caress,’ the soprano’s top B imparting the character’s sincerity. Exhilaratingly sung and ended with a fantastic, long-held top C, the cabaletta ‘I go to him’ unmistakably expressed Anne’s resolve to find Tom at any cost to herself. She portrayed Anne’s journey from hopefulness to despair in Act Two with supreme conviction, voicing the recitative ‘Although the heart for love dares everything’ and the arioso ‘O heart, be stronger’ with emotional simplicity. At last finding Tom amidst the corrupting bounties of London, this Anne’s question of ‘What can this mean?’ was gnawingly poignant, and Schultz communicated the doubt, disappointment, and sadness that undermine the girl’s confidence, singing ‘And, Tom, such splendour’ in the duet with her swain and ‘Could it then have been known’ in the trio with the newly-married Tom and Baba with agitation but without artifice.

Arriving at the auction in Act Three, Schultz inquired ‘Do you know where Tom Rakewell is?’ plaintively and voiced ‘He loves me still’ in the duet with Baba luminously. Her offstage ‘A love that is sworn before Thee’ strikingly penetrated the gloom of Tom’s descent into madness, and, at last finding Tom in the asylum, this Anne’s ‘What should I forgive?’ in the duet and the lullaby ‘Gently, little boat, across the ocean float’ were sweetly comforting. Anne resignedly taking her leave of the dying Tom, Schultz voiced ‘Every wearied body must late or soon return to dust’ in the brief duettino with Trulove expressively. After so much strife, the smile with which the soprano delivered ‘Not every rake is rescued at the last by love and beauty’ in the epilogue irradiated the auditorium with joy. The upper octave of the soprano’s voice was projected with greater impact than its lower reaches, but each tone was placed with care. Every aspect of Anne’s character was credible in Schultz’s performance, in which the impressionable young girl evolved into a mettlesome, self-sufficient woman.

Stravinsky_RAKE_MET_2022_06_Bliss-VanHorn_Ken-HowardBe careful what you wish for: tenor Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell (left) and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Nick Shadow (right) in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 revival of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress>br>[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Historically, the most successful interpreters of Rake’s titular degenerate-in-the-making, Tom Rakewell, have been tenors with extensive experience in Mozart repertoire. Heard in previous MET seasons as Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Ferrando in Così fan tutte, and Tamino in Die ZauberflöteBen Bliss proved himself in this Rake to be a peer of the best Toms in the opera’s seven-decade history. Tom’s affection for Anne was apparent in the tenor’s singing of ‘Now is the season’ in the duet in the opera’s opening scene, but the boredom that precipitates the restless young man’s downfall was also discernible. Bliss performed the recitative ‘Here I stand’ and Tom’s aria ‘Since it is not by merit’ exuberantly, indefatigably negotiating the vocal writing’s assault on the passaggio. Duplicitously informed by Shadow of his inheritance of an unknown uncle’s estate, this Tom delighted in his good fortune, Bliss buoyantly dispatching ‘I wished but once’ in the quartet and ‘Wherever, when apart, I may be’ in the duettino with Anne. Earnestness did not entirely subjugate the wanderlust that lurked in his singing of the arioso ‘Dear Father Trulove’ and ‘Laughter and light and all charms that endear’ in the terzettino with the Truloves.

It was a much-altered Tom who entered Mother Goose’s ribaldrous establishment in the second scene of Act One. Still, boyish awkwardness lent Bliss’s voicings of ‘Love, love! That precious word is like a fiery coal’ and the cavatina ‘Love, too frequently betrayed’ beguiling expressivity. Fascinating, too, was the interpretive acuity with which he sang the arias ‘Vary the song, oh London, change!’ and ‘Always the quarry that I stalk fades’ in Act Two. Convinced by Shadow to take Baba as his wife, Bliss’s Tom exclaimed ‘My tale shall be told both by young and by old’ proudly, but Anne’s discovery of the union unnerved him, evinced by his despondent exclamations of ‘Anne! Here!’ and ‘It is done’ in the exchanges with Anne and Baba. Attaining elusive sleep by silencing Baba, this Tom was bewitched by his manipulated dream of a machine that converts stones into bread, singing the arioso ‘Oh Nick, I’ve had the strangest dream’ and ‘Thanks to this excellent device’ in the duet with Shadow with fervent wonder.

Tom’s path from bankruptcy to insanity and death in Act Three led Bliss through a vocal gauntlet, from which he emerged with assurance. He joined Van Horn in a memorable traversal of the ballad ‘If boys had wings and girls had stings,’ but Tom’s interactions with Shadow in the following scene impelled the tenor to vocalism of escalating distress. Trepidation chilled the singer’s timbre in ‘How dark and dreadful is the place’ and ‘My heart is wild with fear’ in the duets with Shadow, but an aura of triumph returned with Tom’s identifications of the correct cards. Bliss’s Tom succumbed to madness—Shadow’s final revenge—with a hypnotic account of ‘With roses crowned, I sit on ground.’

Tom’s madness girded Bliss’s timbre with a steely sheen in the opera’s final scene, the incandescence of his voicing of the arioso ‘Prepare yourselves, heroic shades’ fading upon Anne’s entrance into the madhouse. His ‘I have waited for thee so long’ and ‘In a foolish dream, in gloomy labyrinth’ in the duet with Anne were wrenchingly wistful. Contrasting an anguished ‘Where art thou, Venus?’ with achingly beautiful sotto voce singing, Bliss’s restrained, serene depiction of Tom’s death was incredibly moving. In a very different way, so, too, was his sounding of ‘Beware, young men who fancy you are Virgil or Julius Caesar’ in the epilogue, his character’s embodiment of the opera’s moral counsel realized with imaginative, unfailingly engaging singing. Bliss’s portrayal of Tom might have saved an ill-rendered Rake’s Progress: in this stellar performance, it validated the genius and undiminished viability of one of the Twentieth Century’s best operas.