Emmanuel Music ventured a bit off their “beaten path” on Saturday, April 16, presenting Igor Stravinsky’s famed opera, The Rake’s Progress, inspired by a series of paintings and engravings of that name by eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth. Ryan Turner expertly led a fine cast, orchestra, and chorus, and the performance was a virtually unqualified success. The setting of Emmanuel Church, unorthodox for an opera perhaps, was not inappropriate for what is in essence a morality tale told by librettists W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Stravinsky, among the most protean of composers, set their words to music which possibly represents the acme of his neo-classical works. Those who know him only from his early ballets, The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, might well disbelieve that this opera is by the same composer.
The tiny orchestra prelude displayed the musical language used throughout the work: entirely tonal but peppered with spiky incidental dissonances. The lead characters, Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove, made their apt entrance processing down the church’s center aisle. Fresh of face and voice, tenor Charles Blandy and soprano Kristen Watson fit their dramatis personae to a T. Their exuberant praise of love in springtime rang true. Bass Paul Guttry, as Trulove, made a contrasting character of greater experience, the voice of moderation, but his devotion to his daughter Anne was plain to see. Our first inkling of Tom’s possibly problematic ambition comes when he declines Trulove’s offer of arranged employment, preferring to live by his wits. Blandy gave us exuberance of a different kind in his aria “Since it is not by merit we rise or fall”, a kind that didn’t explicitly include Anne.
The next character on the scene is Nick Shadow, portrayed by baritone David Kravitz, telling of Tom’s inheritance of a fortune from a “forgotten uncle.” Kravitz skillfully embodied the sophistication of the city in speech, manner, and attire, unlike the homespun Tom and the Truloves. Robust and suave by turns, he counsels Tom to go to London to settle the inheritance, Tom barely hesitates before seizing the opportunity, and, as Nick notes, “the progress of a rake begins.”
The opera becomes increasingly colorful as we watch Tom’s (mis)adventures in the big city, visiting “Mother Goose’s Brothel,” whose whores and “roaring boys” were enthusiastically voiced by the Spectrum Singers, disciplined and boisterous simultaneously. Deborah Rentz-Moore made a delightfully smarmy Mother Goose, pulling rank on her underlings in order to take Tom “under her wing.”
By autumn, Anne is consumed with worry, having heard nothing from Tom. Her famous aria is a test of any soprano, not least for its length: two recitatives alternating with a cavatina and cabaletta. Watson was moving and musical, thoroughly convincing in her progression from worry and sorrow to renewed devotion and determination to help Tom. The only reservation this reviewer had was that in the dramatic final section (“I go to him”) Watson’s voice in the lower register was a shade too light to carry over the orchestra in a handful of places, despite Turner’s care in keeping them as soft as possible. Fortunately, they were only isolated instances.
Act II introduces the comic character of Baba the Turk, the bearded lady Tom is induced to marry by Nick Shadow’s used-car-salesmanship and warped logic: humans are miserable because they are enslaved to either hedonism on one hand or prudish conscience on the other. What better way to attain freedom than to ignore both extremes and marry something hideous (“brave warriors . . . have swooned after a mere glimpse of her”)? Mezzo-soprano Mary Westbrook-Geha stole the show for a time with Baba’s vexation at the arrival of Tom‘s “ancient flame,” her incessant chattering about her collection of tchotchkes, and her nagging jag (mockingly using a theme from Anne’s earlier cavatina) when she realizes Tom’s heart belongs to Anne, not herself.
Nick Shadow, in Kravitz’s nuanced portrayal, continues to reveal more of his real self. He ostensibly shows Tom a way to redeem himself in Anne’s eyes, and Tom, still blind to Nick’s real purposes, leaps on it. Soon enough, though, Nick has turned events to his plans, Tom is ruined, and goes into hiding. Consequently, all the contents of Tom’s London house are put on the auction block, whereupon our final comic character arrives: Sellem, the auctioneer. It would be virtually impossible to be over the top with this character, and tenor Frank Kelley indeed played him like a demented charades player–but with vocalizations of all sorts. The chorus gets to join in the fun as bidders on Baba’s various pieces of kitsch. When Baba sees this, there is a delectable showdown between her and Sellem. But Anne’s unexpected reappearance has surprising results when Baba admits defeat and even reaches out to Anne. Ultimately, Baba and Sellem, now sympathetic characters, both urge Anne to find Tom soon in order to save him.
If the denouement requires a degree of suspension of disbelief, it is due to the plot (which is nevertheless more plausible than those of some operas), not the fine acting and singing of Kravitz, Blandy, and Watson. To cite one example, the nonplussed expression on Nick’s face when Anne appears and swears her love for Tom, is perfect, quickly morphing into fury at being thwarted, partly by his own delay in claiming Tom’s soul. The one bit of retaliation he can enact is to destroy Tom’s sanity.
In the insane asylum, Bedlam, Tom is convinced he is Adonis and awaits the visit of Venus in the person of Anne. Devoted to the last, she does appear, movingly humoring him by calling him Adonis and praying that his “frantic spirit” will soon be free. The opera proper ends with his peaceful demise and the chorus touchingly singing, “Mourn for Adonis, ever young.”
However, this is, as noted above, a morality tale, and thus in an epilogue the principals reappear to give their individual morals, remaining in character — some thoughtful, others funny. At the very end all unite to offer the axiom: “For idle hands and hearts and minds, the Devil finds a work to do.” There surely were no idle hands in the preparation of this excellent performance. I look forward to future explorations of unusual repertoire by Emmanuel Music.