The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky’s largest but by no means only theatrical work, includes a cast of eight singers, a chorus of ‘Whores and Roaring Boys, Servants, Citizens and Madmen’, and a chamber orchestra consisting of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, and strings. The opera originally appeared in three acts, but the composer later performed the work in two, dividing the second act with the only intermission. Today most performances, including this one, adopt this design.
Igor Stravinsky completed his English opera of heaven and hell, of the soul and the soulless, of existential and material ruthlessness, and of the redemptive power of love, in 1951. Its first performance took place that same year in Venice, with the composer conducting. Lying between the composition of his icy sacred Mass and the equally cool secular Cantata, The Rake’s Progress bridges and focuses the two worlds of these choral works—the sacred and the profane—with some of the hottest music from any era of this composer’s creative output.
Inspired by the series of engravings and paintings of the same name by William Hogarth (1697-1763) that Stravinsky saw in Chicago in 1947 (now held at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London), the opera merges these road to ruin tableaux with visions of Mephistopheles, Faust, and the Devil of Histoire du soldat. A moral fable after the model of Don Giovanni, Figaro, Magic Flute and, most of all, Così fan tutte, The Rake’s Progress does mark Stravinsky’s most loving homage to Mozart—a ‘numbers’ opera, complete with detailed and magnificent secco recitatives, and propelled by a crisp and transparent musical language. Regardless of its roots, however, it contains not one note that is not pure Stravinsky.
This unique music by the thoroughly unique composer who at one point claimed that music had the power to express nothing emerges as one of his most pathos-ridden, tragic creations. Hovering between artifice and illusion, the absurdities in the plot—Baba the Turk, the stones-into-bread machine, the wager, Bedlam itself—though no more removed from verisimilitude than the plots of many operas, including the great Mozart ones, allow the characters to express (yes, that word, ‘express’) truths of the human condition. Some listeners hear the operas of Britten and Berg, struggling between chaos and order, as among the greatest twentieth century musical expressions of contemporary disintegration. But Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, too, gives us some of the most devastating music of those hundred years, music perhaps more lastingly personal than Peter Grimes and more subtly wrenching than Wozzeck. Moreover, Stravinsky’s exquisite musical discipline that controls the temperature of The Rake’s Progress affirms his other statement (Poetics of Music) that, “Art is freer when it is more limited, more finished, canonical, dogmatic.” The Rake’s Progress could be the most imaginative and vivid exploration of human frailty, laid out in high order and elegance, since the end of the eighteenth century.
Act I: Anne Trulove is in the garden of her father’s country house with her suitor, Tom Rakewell, admiring the springtime. Sending Anne into the house, her father, Trulove, tells Tom he has arranged an accountant’s job for him in the city. Tom declines the offer and the older man leaves. A stranger enters as Tom declares his determination to live by his wits and enjoy life. When he says “I wish I had money,” the stranger introduces himself as Nick Shadow, “at your service.” Shadow tells Tom that a forgotten rich uncle has died, leaving the young man a fortune. Anne and Trulove return to hear the news, the latter urging Tom to accompany Shadow to London to settle the estate. As Tom leaves, promising to send for Anne as soon as everything is arranged, Shadow turns to announce, “the Progress of a Rake begins.”
At a brothel in the city, whores entertain a group of “roaring boys,” dissolute young playboys; together they toast Venus and Mars. Shadow coaxes Tom to recite for the madam, Mother Goose, the catechism he has taught him: to follow nature rather than doctrine, to seek beauty (which is perishable) and pleasure (which means different things to different people). Tom refuses, however, to define love. Turning back the clocks when he sees Tom restless to escape, Shadow commends him to the pursuit of hedonism with these companions. Tom responds with ruminations of love. When the whores offer to console him, Mother Goose claims him for herself and leads him off.
As evening falls, Anne leaves her father’s house, determined to find Tom, since she has heard nothing from him.
Act II: Tom, who is in the morning-room of his house in the city, is beginning to tire of city pleasures and no longer dares to think of Anne. When he says, “I wish I were happy,” Shadow appears, showing a poster for Baba the Turk, a bearded lady whom he urges Tom to marry, because only when one is obligated neither to passion nor to reason can one be truly free. Amused by the idea, Tom gets ready to go out.
Anne approaches Tom’s house but is hesitant to knock. As darkness falls, she sees servants enter with strangely shaped packages. A conveyance arrives and Tom steps out. Startled to see Anne, he says she must forget him, for he cannot go back to her. Baba calls out from the sedan, whereupon Tom admits to the astonished Anne that he is married. Hurried along by Baba’s impatient remarks, Anne faces the bitter realities, while Tom repeats that it is too late to turn back. As Tom helps Baba from the sedan, a curious and excited crowd gathers. Anne hurriedly leaves.
In his morning-room, Tom sits sulking amid Baba’s curios as she chatters about the origin of each. When he refuses to respond to her affection, she complains bitterly. Tom silences her and she remains motionless as Tom falls asleep. Shadow wheels in a strange contraption, and when Tom awakes, saying “Oh I wish it were true,” the machine turns out to be his dream: an invention for making stones into bread. Seeing it as a means of redemption for his misdeeds, Tom wonders whether he might again deserve Anne. Shadow points out the device’s usefulness in duping potential investors.
Act III: On a spring afternoon, the same scene (including the stationary Baba) is set for an auction. Customers examine the various objects: Tom’s business venture has ended in ruin. Amid rumors as to what has become of Tom, Anne enters in search of him. An auctioneer, Sellem, begins to hawk various objects–including Baba, who resumes her chatter after the crowd bids to purchase her. Indignant at finding her belongings up for sale, she tries to order everyone out. She draws Anne aside, saying the girl should try to save Tom, who still loves her. Anne, hearing Tom and Shadow singing in the street, runs out.
Shadow leads Tom to a graveyard with a freshly dug grave, where he reminds the young man that a year and a day have passed since he promised to serve him: now the servant claims his wage. Tom must end his life by any means he chooses before the stroke of twelve. Suddenly, Shadow offers a reprieve: they will gamble for Tom’s soul. When Tom, placing his trust in the Queen of Hearts, calls upon Anne, and her voice is heard, Shadow realizes he has lost. In retaliation, he condemns Tom to insanity. As Shadow disappears and dawn rises, Tom–gone mad–imagines himself Adonis, waiting for Venus.
In an insane asylum, Tom declares Venus will visit him, whereupon fellow inmates mock the idea. The Keeper admits Anne. Believing her to be Venus, Tom confesses his sins: “I hunted the shadows, disdaining thy true love.” Briefly they imagine timeless love in Elysium. With his head upon her breast, Tom asks her to sing him to sleep. As she does, her voice moves the other inmates. Trulove comes to fetch his daughter, who bids the sleeping Tom farewell. When he wakens to find her gone, he cries out for Venus as the inmates sing “Mourn for Adonis.” Epilogue: Everyone gathers to tell the moral that each finds in the story. Anne warns that not every man can hope for someone like her to save him; Baba warns that all men are mad; Tom warns against self-delusion, to Trulove’s agreement; Shadow mourns his role as man’s alter ego; and all concur that the devil finds work for idle hands.
–adapted from Opera News