In the first act of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,’’ Tom Rakewell, a fledgling libertine, grieves for lost love. “How sad a song,’’ a chorus of prostitutes replies, “but sadness charms.’’ It took a little while, but Emmanuel Music’s concert performance of the opera on Saturday night eventually achieved that balance of charismatic, exuberant woe.
With Stravinsky’s finely honed morality tale, Ryan Turner, finishing his first season as Emmanuel Music’s director, both honored and tweaked the group’s long association with Mozart’s operas. The pageant of the idle Tom, tempted by the diabolical Nick Shadow into abandoning his affianced Anne Trulove, is deliberate in its Mozartean echoes. Stravinsky and his literate librettists, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, were inspired by William Hogarth engravings; the music often seems an off-kilter print of the Classical style, the plates deliberately misaligned, exposing irrationalities the Enlightenment tried to sweep under the rug.
The leads offered superlative singing. Kristin Watson’s soprano came into impressive focus with Anne Trulove’s Act I aria, lightness leveraged with lucid passagework and finely etched nuance sustained through the opera. Tenor Charles Blandy was a terrific match for the part of Tom Rakewell, unfailingly, tirelessly lyrical. As Nick Shadow, baritone David Kravitz was sonorously fine, a powerful gunmetal voice with a sardonic polish around the edges. Their characterizations were crisp: Watson’s Anne more determined than discerning, sure that the next iteration of her oft-repeated phrases will finally line up; Kravitz giving Shadow’s lines a hint of mirthful color, bemused at his quarry’s fecklessness. Blandy’s Tom was both naïf and willing victim, ruing his own callowness while indulging the temptation to hide behind it.
Smaller roles featured familiar Emmanuel faces. Tenor Frank Kelley brought experienced theatrical guile to the role of Sellem, the auctioneer; as the upwardly mobile sideshow star Baba the Turk, mezzo-soprano Mary Westbrook-Geha was somewhat winded by the character’s chatter, but regally realized her weary, self-conscious grandeur. For Deborah Rentz-Moore’s Mother Goose, the madam, little registered beyond a fleeting, telegraphed worldliness. Basses Paul Guttry and Donald Wilkinson, as Anne’s father and Tom’s asylum-keeper, respectively, made stronger impressions, couched in dignified vocal tone. The Spectrum Singers (directed by John Ehrlich) provided wide-ranging choral atmosphere, from rustling gossip to Tom’s final, limpid requiem.
The concert presentation made room for elementary but deft interaction between characters. Other staging was only tentatively sketched in, with the help a pair of dancers (Andrew Trego and Ariel Miasnik). The music carried the story: Michael Beattie, in particular, made trenchant work of Stravinsky’s harpsichord part, its sharp flourishes of commentary.
Turner’s conducting was elegantly choreographed, but, in the first half, more responsive than incisive; tempos were solid but the rhythm seemed a bit on its heels, not enough momentum between notes. After intermission, Turner furnished more headlong freedom, and the orchestra caught up to the spirit of the piece, its glitter and melancholy. In the deceptively pastoral final parting of Anne and Tom, this “Rake’s Progress’’ embodied the opera’s paradoxically grim delight in life, in its folly, in the ingenious efficiency with which it breaks your heart.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.