Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Progress of the Rake - Stravinsky triumphs at the MET

4.V.15 | NYC – Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress at the Met
Levine: Appleby, Claire, Finley, Blythe, Sherratt, Lattimore, Stevenson, Corona

Monday night's performance of The Rake’s Progress may well have been the best the 65-year-old work has ever had. Having heard both incarnations of the Met’s previous outings (which account for the majority of the opera’s two-dozen some performances there), this surpassed its predecessors musically and dramatically at every turn. The two male principals, Rakewell and Shadow in particular, were as perfect a pair of singing actors as you could wish for the title character and his Mephistophelian foil. Paul Appleby and Gerald Finley defined their roles and set a new standard in the process. Layla Claire was a beautiful Anne: I have never been so moved to tears by this opera I count among my favorites; its emotional depths were plumbed with gorgeous tone and affecting color in each of her scenes. Stephanie Blythe, who sang Baba in the Met’s most recent remount in 2003 was even better, like a super Tuscan that’s deepened without mellowing but has, instead, sharpened its focus. Maggie Lattimore made one wish Mother Goose had more to her cameo appearance; she earned her droigte de Madame in her pivotal scene as Nick’s accomplice. When do you leave this opera wishing Father Trulove had an aria? I know I'm not the only one who wants to hear more of Brindley Sherratt "this side the pond."

If the work has had a finer chorus and auctioneer than the Met and Tony Stevenson, I’d be dumbfounded to hear them. The chorus – is there a better opera chorus in the world these days? – under Donald Polumbo has made considerable gains where details of tone color, articulation, and balance are concerned, without losing any of the visceral force for which it is known. It takes a sophisticated and versatile technique, and an incomparable level of professionalism to accomplish what these musicians do from day to day, throughout the 40-some weeks of the Met’s season. In this, they are equaled only by the Met orchestra, which under James Levine, has become not only the best opera orchestra on the planet, but one of the great orchestras, period. And Maestro Levine was in top form last night. Sitting with my BFF, Steven White, Levine’s assistant conductor for this show, I was aware of the pivotal role he played in preparing for this run, leading staging rehearsals, and jumping into orchestra rehearsals as needed. Having sung under Maestro Levine (in the Verbier festival chorus), it was not hard to imagine the details clarified during the orchestra in the 3 reads they had prior to last Friday’s opening night (this was the 2nd or 3 performances this season). The emotional depth surrounding Anne’s music owed as much to the orchestra and its conductor as to its exceptional young soprano. I’ve never heard Stravinsky’s opera, nor a comparable 20th century companion, played with such range of color. The performance was fleet and incisive, had weight and depth of texture and timbre, but never lacked a chamber music transparency when necessary. Levine let the score breathe in between episodes of great dramatic impetus and momentum. One heard its connection to not only 18th-century baroque and classical models, but also to the grandeur of 19th century tragedy. It was elegant without ever being pompous, moving but never maudlin.

(One of William Hogarth's "Rake's" engravings; the musician to the left is thought to be a caricature of Handel)

In addition to appreciating the details of the score and simply enjoying the vocal excellence on display, the production resonated with me in a way it hadn’t before. To cite one instance, the 3rd and final scene in Act III features the chorus in the asylum with Tom. This choice has obvious musico-dramatic purposes, as it gives “Mad” Tom - who believes he’s Adonis, with Anne as his Venus - a Greek chorus to accompany the haunting, heart-breaking final scene. The Jonathan Miller production uses the same set for Bedlam it had for Mother Goose’s brothel. A central upstage corridor, which served as a hallway leading to several rooms of ill-repute in the Brothel – Mother Goose was leading Tom to one as the curtain came down on it – is now separated from the main room of the stage by prison bars, and the closed-door chambers are solitary confinement cells. By using the entire chorus, Stravinsky and his brilliant librettists, Auden and Kallman have added layers of musical and dramatic depth, while heightening our participation in this morality tale. The entire community is implicated in the wages of sin, otherwise known as the human condition. Like Don Giovanni, one of its primary precursors, the epilogue’s ebullient tone and 4th-wall-breaking function can’t ameliorate the tragedy we’ve experienced, however much its élan may tempt a leavening of the mood.

(Hogarth's "In the Madhouse" - the final image in his series)

To crown this "festival of May," I can’t recall ever experiencing an audience so enthusiastically responsive to a post-WWII-era opera. Bravi tutti! In the meantime, if you don't have tickets to the Saturday matinee, tune in to your local NPR station at 1 pm for the final radio broadcast of the season.

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