OPERA / Finding work for idle hands to do: Bayan Northcott sketches the complex background to Stravinsky's opera, The Rake's Progress

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Fate or luck? According to Stravinsky himself, it was during a chance visit to a Hogarth exhibition in Chicago on 2 May 1947 that he suddenly envisaged the eight engravings comprising The Rake's Progress as a series of operatic scenes: 'I was, however, readily susceptible to such a suggestion, for I had wanted to compose an opera in English ever since my arrival in the United States.'

At the time of that epiphany, he was just coming up to 65 and distinctly out of fashion - indeed, the notion of his decline, ever since renouncing the spectacular manner of his early Russian ballets some 25 years before, had become something of a received idea. Moreover, he had lost direct contact with his European audiences after his flight to America in 1939, and was not to return until the premiere of The Rake itself in Venice in 1951. It is understandable that he should wish at last to compose a full-scale opera, if not to recoup his reputation, at least to crown his creative development. But in English? As an enthusiast for Purcell even before he came to America, he must have realised there was precious little in subsequent English opera to build on - with the partial exception of Gilbert and Sullivan, for whom Diaghilev had had a soft spot.

What changed all that was the sudden triumph of Peter Grimes in 1945, which Stravinsky could hardly have missed, since by the end of the year he had been drawn into an association with the publishers Boosey & Hawkes, who already regarded Britten as their white-haired boy. Then, six weeks after viewing the Hogarth, Stravinsky attended a Los Angeles production of Britten's second opera, The Rape of Lucretia. This must have raised still more complex feelings, for, of all the younger composer's operas, none profits so directly from his early enthusiasm for Stravinsky's own pre-war masterpieces, the Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex. To compound matters, it seems that it was on this very occasion that Aldous Huxley suggested to Stravinsky the ideal librettist for The Rake would be W H Auden.

No doubt Stravinsky was aware, or quickly learnt, that Auden had already pursued an intense collaboration with Britten. He is unlikely to have discovered until later the extent to which that collaboration had foundered after the apparent failure of the choral operetta Paul Bunyan in 1941 - with Britten pulling away from Auden's intellectual dominance, or being pulled for more personal reasons by his newer companion, Peter Pears. But in any case, what Stravinsky sought from his librettist was, initially, something far simpler than the quite elaborately cross-cut forms and double-time scheme of a piece such as The Rape of Lucretia: merely a ballad opera- like sequence of song texts and some help in developing plot and dialogue. It was only after looking for models in the Mozart operas that he decided even to use sung recitative between numbers instead of speech. Auden, meanwhile, was happy in the prospective challenge to his stylistic and metrical virtuosity, but more worried about how the pliant protagonist of Hogarth's fragmentary narrative could be turned into a dramatic character.

When the two men actually came together in Stravinsky's Hollywood home for a week in November 1947 to rough-out a scenario, they seem to have reverted to the basic Shavian proposition that an opera is where the tenor wants to make love to the soprano but is prevented by the baritone: except that, in The Rake, it is the soprano who does most of the chasing. Hogarth's brothel and Bedlam scenes were retained, and Auden - who, in addition to being something of a musician, already knew a number of the composer's stage pieces - took care to work in typically Stravinskian preoccupations such as the gambling motif or the curious way such dramas as Renard, The Soldier's Tale and Jeu de Cartes keep stopping and returning to their starting- points.

Then, back in New York, Auden took his own young companion Chester Kallman as collaborator. In addition to his literary gifts, Kallman was a serious buff who had been largely responsible for Auden's operatic education; but his roving eye had also long since ruptured a relationship Auden had initially regarded as a kind of marriage, and the invocation of Kallman's help may also have represented an attempt to return to their starting-point.

Be that as it may, by the time Auden handed the final chunk of his impeccably neo-Augustan libretto over to Stravinsky in late March 1948, its Hogarthian morality had acquired a Christian gloss in the form of a Faustian pact with the Devil, a fairytale complement of Three Wishes (plus an uncovenanted Fourth by way of denouement), and a pagan sub-text through allusions to the myth of Venus and Adonis - all projected against a background of the ever- revolving seasons, as if to exemplify the human experience of temporality Stravinsky encapsulated in another context when he remarked: 'Time does not pass; only we pass.'

By the time he had completed the three-act score in early 1951, its neo-classical procedures had gathered in an equally wide range of allusions, all the way back to Monteverdi and forward to Donizetti, early Verdi, even - for the camp personage of Baba the Bearded Lady, whom Tom Rakewell marries by way of acte gratuit - to Broadway. But long before that, there were doubts. Britten, visiting Stravinsky in November 1949 during an American recital tour with Pears, was nonplussed when Stravinsky seemed to deny that The Rape had beaten The Rake to it in renewing the use of recitative, and evidently concluded thereafter that the Auden / Stravinsky enterprise represented a reactionary diversion from the progressive, post-Verdian direction in which he was seeking to steer opera. Auden, picking up Britten's disapproval, gleefully conveyed it to Stravinsky, who might have been more put out had he not admired the artistry of Pears, and even briefly 'borrowed' him for a recording of Oedipus Rex shortly after the premiere of The Rake. But the seeds of the strangely fruitful later tension between the two great composers - the subject of the current Aldeburgh Festival - were duly sown.

Yet Britten's provocative criticism merely anticipated the chorus of doubts that attended the opera's early progress: complaints about Stravinsky's idiosyncratic English word-setting; about Auden's and Kallman's silly jokes (such as the magic bread-machine); about the whole relevance of a neo-classical opera in the mid- 20th century. These in turn were to inspire an often brilliant critical literature, seeking to explore and justify the work's multiple significances. In surveying such writings, let alone the complex artistic and personal circumstances that attended the making of The Rake itself, it is difficult not to interpret so intricately factured a work as an emblem of art in crisis: a shoring-up of cultural ruins.

How to explain, then, that in the theatre itself, its quirks and artificialities seem to matter less and less; that more and more it comes over simply as a vital and moving whole? Partly no doubt, because, beneath its brittle surface, Stravinsky and Auden invested the central relationship between Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell with so much personal feeling: in Stravinsky's case, for his second wife, Vera; in Auden's, for the errant Kallman. But beyond this there was Stravinsky's and Auden's mutual respect - each recognising in the other, as Auden put it, 'a professional artist, concerned not for his personal glory, but solely for the thing-to-be-made'. Even in - or especially in - fragmented cultures, this is surely what still matters most.

'Rake's Progress': in rep at Glyndebourne (0273 813813) from tomorrow