Classical: Live Review - The making of a Rake

The Rake's Progress Metropolitan Opera, New York

Unlike so many of the works Igor Stravinsky wrote for Serge Diaghilev's hot-house Ballets Russes, his 1951 full-length opera The Rake's Progress is a conscious bid for mainstream consumption. But despite its Mozartean outer garments and witty, semi-surreal WH Auden/ Chester Kallman dramatisation of William Hogarth's 18th-century etchings, the piece was indifferently received at the Met in 1953 and has never seemed that comfortable in the American operatic mainstream since.

Jonathan Miller's new Met production, however, feels like a breakthrough of sorts. The opera seems perfectly at home with conductor James Levine's plush sonorities; the cast, headed by Dawn Upshaw and Jerry Hadley - so vastly unlike their 1951 predecessors Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Robert Rounseville - sang as if the music were even more deeply in their bones than Mozart. The work itself happily accommodated Miller's none-too-thoughtful but oddly gratifying updating. It was one of the better nights I've had at the Met in the last few seasons.

Miller's idea is to reset the opera in Germany's Weimar Republic, apparently on the assumption that the time Auden spent with Christopher Isherwood in 1930s Berlin was something he drew heavily upon in creating this libretto. There are parallels, of course, but not ones that particularly illuminate the decadent downward spiral taken by young Tom Rakewell, who inherits money, loses it in the big city and finally forfeits his sanity to the devil. Mostly, Miller's staging just means that the opera looks like Fritz Lang's film Metropolis, with lots of angular cityscapes, a Mother Goose brothel resembling a German night-club, and a sense of an inside-out parallel universe.

The main benefit of the concept - at least as executed by set designer Peter Davison - is its cleaner look, which allows Miller to strip away the opera's usual Hogarthian trappings and see whether Stravinsky's neo- classic manner is more than just interior decoration. Even with Stravinsky's lack of differentiated vocal lines among the characters and Auden's so obviously emblematic character names (Anne Trulove, Nick Shadow, Sellem the auctioneer and so forth), there's more substance than one guessed. With modern dress, the characters seem less artificial, more immediate, particularly Baba The Turk, the bearded lady whom Tom briefly marries. She loses a bit of her freakishness in this staging but gains glamour and comedy from her stylistic and temperamental resemblance to Isherwood's immortal Sally Bowles (of Cabaret fame).

More importantly, though, the opera is made more frankly emotional. The moment when Anne realises that Tom has married another is always one of the opera's emotional peaks; here it has an almost Puccinian impact. While David Hockney (in his Glyndebourne staging) had a designer holiday with the loony-bin where poor Tom ends up in the final act, providing all sorts of delightfully bizarre masks for the inmates, Miller (sorry, Dr Miller) plays it for real.

Naturally, an essential catalyst here is the singers. I've heard Upshaw and Hadley in the roles of Anne and Tom many times before, but they have perhaps never sung them with more musicianship or expression. That's not surprising with Upshaw, who is constantly getting better, but it is with Hadley, whose tendencies towards oversinging and grotesque over-acting were here held at bay, reminding us that he really could be America's greatest lyric tenor. As Baba, Denyce Graves not only proves she can sing something other than Carmen, but that having a young, vocally limber voice in the role can reveal previously unheard details of characterisation. The only one who didn't seem particularly enlivened was Samuel Ramey as the devilish, vocally suave Nick Shadow. Perhaps even this seasoned villain is falling victim to the banality of evil.

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