Entertainment » Music

The Rake's Progress

by Ed Tapper
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Mar 14, 2017
Ben Bliss and the ensemble in the Boston Lyric Opera's production of "The Rake's Progress."
Ben Bliss and the ensemble in the Boston Lyric Opera's production of "The Rake's Progress."  (Source:BLO)

It is no surprise that, for a sweeping, final statement to his Neoclassical period, Igor Stravinsky would turn to the art of 18th century engraver William Hogarth for inspiration. Eliciting the assistance of poet W.H. Auden, he began the composition of what would be his most substantial and elaborate composition, the opera "The Rake's Progress."

Due to its length, and the sizable performing forces and production challenges necessary to do it justice, the work is not often staged. Closely modeled after earlier prototypes, the work is in three acts, and adheres to traditional structures such as recitative, aria and ensemble. Yet the harmonies are spiked with mild dissonance that is unmistakably "Stravinskian."

The orchestration is also based on Classical patterns, and consists of selected brass, pairs of woodwinds and strings. In an effort to give his opera a true period feel, Stravinsky added a harpsichord into the orchestration---a bold touch for 1953. With its restrained, Neoclassical style, and extended length, "The Rake's Progress" runs the risk of being dull if not properly performed. The Boston Lyric Opera's positively dazzling new production brings the work to life in exemplary fashion.

Heather Johnson  (Source:BLO)

In spite of its neo-Baroque style, "The Rake's Progress" is very much a 20th century, Modernist opera; and, as such, readily lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Over the past few decades revivals have been set in a variety of historical epochs and locations. This new, BLO production appears to be set in the late 1940's, around the time that Stravinsky first viewed the Hogarth etchings. However, period is relatively unimportant, as the sets, costumes and staging are wonderfully fanciful and Surrealistic.

The designers and stage director maintain visual interest throughout, utilizing every inch of the Cutler Majestic stage. And almost everything worked. Similar to last season's "Werther," where the staging called for the title hero to be visible for the entire opera, BLO's "Rakes Progress" featured an actor playing Stravinsky, the character physically participating in much of the action. This concept lends little to the work, and is, at moments, distracting. Yet it didn't lessen the impact of a lively and imaginative production, particularly when the music-making itself was of such a high caliber. (The direction was by Allegra Libonati; sets by Julia Noulin-Mérat; lighting by Mark Stanley; costumes by John Conklin and Neil Fortin; and movement by Yury Yanowsky, who also plays Stravinsky.)

The young, talented cast assembled for this "Rake's Progress" could scarcely have been bettered. Vocally and physically, all of the solo singers were ideally suited to the characters they were portraying. In the case of Ben Bliss as the work's hero, Tom Rakewell, physicality was certainly an issue, since he was required to appear in various stages of undress for much of the performance. Fortunately, his toned body was in great shape---as was his voice. His sweet supple tenor suggested the naiveté of the character; and he sang throughout with unerring accuracy and fine musicianship. With respect to acting, he was as convincing a sympathetic anti-hero as was Kevin Burdette a devilish arch-villain.

Jane Eaglen and Ben Bliss  (Source:BLO)

Having sung roles with BLO in recent seasons, Burdette returned to Boston as Stravinsky's heavy, Nick Shadow. A superb all-around actor, he has appeared in several contemporary operas in the interim; so he was completely at home with Stravinsky's idiom. His sturdy basso was in excellent form, and his nimble, fluid stage movement made for an unusually suave Shadow.

Soprano Anya Matanovic created a stunning Anne Trulove, a heroine who, as her the character's name suggests, is unflagging in her to devotion to her beloved Tom. Belying her petite stature, her voice is well-sized and focused. It is a soprano of great purity, and often quite affecting. Like her colleagues, she acted her role to perfection, and proved a noble and sympathetic heroine.

The minor roles were also unusually well sung. Heather Johnson made much of the enigmatic Baba the Turk, singing with a rich, secure mezzo, and managing well the transformation from the flighty diva who locks horns with Anne, to the trusted friend who consoles her.

As always, BLO regular Ben Cushing was a joy to hear. Though he sang the smaller role of Anne's father, his impressive bass voice gave the part real stature. In a luxurious bit of casting, famed soprano Jane Eaglen appeared as the brothel Madame, Mother Goose. From the impressive size and color of her instrument, one could easily hear how she became one of the great Wagnerian singers of the age. The remarkable BLO chorus was up to the numerous challenges of Stravinsky's tricky score, as was the orchestra, led by the talented David Angus.

BLO's "The Rake's Progress" definitely ranks among the company's most successful endeavors in recent years. Performances at the Majestic will continue through March 19. Next month, the current season concludes at John Hancock Hall with an authentic work of Classicism, Mozart's enduring masterwork, "The Marriage of Figaro."

Remaining performances of The Rake's Progress are Wednesday, March 15 and Friday, March 17 at 7:30pm; and Sunday, March 19 at 3pm. For more information, visit the Boston Lyric Opera website.

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