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Raking Over Igor

[whitespace] Rake's Progress
The Shadow Knows: Maris Vipulis as Nick Shadow leads Tom Rakewell astray in 'The Rake's Progress.'



'Rake's Progress' is long on music, light on action

By Michael J. Vaughan

IN A NOTABLE example of artistic cross-pollination, Igor Stravinsky took the title and theme for his 1951 opera, The Rake's Progress, from a popular series of etchings by the 18th-century British illustrator and satirist William Hogarth. He then took the idea to a poet, W.H. Auden, for his libretto.

The latter move may have been a mistake. Though Auden and co-author Chester Kallman turned out a text filled with gorgeous swatches of language ("Vary the song, O London change/Disband your notes and let them range"), they displayed little sense for stage and story. Working from Hogarth's wry and vivid illustrated narrative, the two writers managed to remove the action from every place but the intermission, leaving their characters to pace around musing philosophically about all that exciting stuff that happened while you were out in the lobby sipping French roast.

What's worse, however, was the decision to transform Rake into yet another operatic variation on the Faust myth. This angle comes in the form of Nick Shadow, your typical Mephistopheles type, who leads our antihero, Tom Rakewell, down the slippery path of moral degeneration through a phony inheritance and a trip to the more squalid parts of Big Bad London.

Now, much as I love the idea of creating more career opportunities for bass-baritones (who just love to play devils), the introduction of an all-powerful Satan serves mostly to take any moral complexity right out of Hogarth's story and turn our supposed rake into more of a simpering, guilt-ridden puppet. I'd much rather have Verdi's Duke of Mantua, who slides through his sins like a greased pig, singing all the way, or Mozart's Giovanni, who at least has a bucketful of adulterous fun before being dragged down to Hades.

So, are there any real reasons to see Opera San José's production? Maybe. For one, Stravinsky's score is a derivative yet lovely thing to behold. Smack in his later neoclassical phase, the Russian-turned-American composer brought some fascinating confluences to his work--like traditional harpsichord recitatives with 12-tone-row vocal lines, or Mozartean tonalities framed over modernist meter shifts. Stravinsky also deftly avoids the century-long bias toward the orchestra and gives his spare, beautiful vocal lines a quiet place to nest.

BARBARA DAY TURNER and her orchestra attacked Stravinsky's light-yet-sophisticated music with vigor, assisted by some appropriately lyric voices. At Sunday's performance, Soprano Barbara Divis (the lead roles are double cast), who played the rather bland role of sweet-girl-back-home Anne Trulove, brought out some sublime musical moments, like her Montgomery Theater-filling crescendo at the end of Anne's Act I aria, "I go, I go to him."

Bass-baritone Maris Vipulis had the expected fun with Shadow, aided by a conspicuously horned wig and Goth-rock make-up (courtesy of Sara Beukers). Mezzo Ava Baker Liss made Rakewell's ill-chosen freak-show bride, Baba the Turk, into an amusing blend of mystery woman and hyperspeed Chatty Cathy, and tenor Christopher Fernandez flounced artfully as auctioneer and schmooze artist Sellem.

The real treat was unabashedly lyric tenor Robert McPherson, whose singing in the title role demonstrated a continued growth in confidence and voice. The final scene, in which a now-institutionalized Tom mistakes Anne for Venus, makes a poignant ending to an often-uninspiring work, beginning with Tom's greeting arioso, "I have waited for thee so long," and ending with Anne's disarmingly simple lullaby, "Gently, little boat."

Still and all, at the end of three hours of actionless opera, when the madhouse chorus pleaded with Anne to "Sing on! Forever sing!" I felt sorely tempted to stand and shout, "No! Really! I think we're ready to go now!" I suppose I could always say the devil made me do it.


The Rake's Progress plays Sept. 17-19, 22, 24 and 26 at 8pm and Sept. 20 and 27 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $32-$50. (408/437-4450)

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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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