By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK — Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet score was like a land mine that blew the lid off the 20th-century music scene. Its turbulent, lasting effect made Pulcinella, his stylish suite of Baroque dances originally attributed to Pergolesi, look like an apology for the riots and vitriol caused by Rite. When, at 70, Stravinsky composed the opera, The Rake’s Progress, which aesthetic model did he choose to revisit? Not Rite, the century’s volatile touchstone, but the harpsichord recitatives, elegant arias, and radiant, clear harmonies of 17th- and 18th-century Europe.
The Metropolitan Opera revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1997 production, led with affection and insight by James Levine on May 1, yielded “I loved it” from audience members in the aisles, and, afterwards, in the street and the subway. It’s a fair assessment of the sweet, edgy morality tale tracing the downfall of Tom Rakewell, who pays the price for preferring wretched excess to uncomplicated married life in the country.
Tempted by the Devil, whose agent is Nick Shadow, gracefully played and sung by the graceful Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, Tom (tenor Paul Appleby) leaves Anne Trulove, the Canadian soprano Layla Claire (in a too-prim skirt and sweater). He follows Nick, and she pursues Tom to the sinful city. He rebuffs her until his end in an insane asylum, where she visits him and he thinks she is Venus.
The story has been compared to Don Giovanni, but with Shadow facilitating Tom’s decline, it’s more like Faust. And there are resonances with Stravinsky’s 1918 Histoire du Soldat: a soldier heading home to his betrothed after the war is tempted by the Devil, who tricks the well-meaning soldier until the audience is turned off by the latter’s credulity.
Appleby and Claire, alumni of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, starred in Juilliard’s charming 2011 production of The Bartered Bride and are comfortable together, though their voices — particularly hers — were small for this great hall. Maybe they were coached not to push volume, but Claire could have used more vocal color and less emphasis on keeping it simple. Or the shoes were too sensible.
There were roars of audience approval for Stephanie Blythe as Baba the Turk, the outrageous bearded lady whom Shadow entices Tom to marry. In addition to spot-on pitch and slam-dunk articulation, the Catskills-born mezzo apparently absorbed comic Borscht-belt timing and gesture from infancy. As easily as she commands party-goers at the prestigious Opera News Awards dinner to sing “I’ll be loving you, always,” she can steal an opera scene where she’s in an ingenious trio, her hand flicking imperiously from the curtained window of a car. (This is at least the third Met production this year with an onstage car.)
“I’d go anywhere to do it,” Blythe said on WQXR. “It’s Auden, for heaven’s sake.” She was referring to the libretto, by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, made for Stravinsky after he had seen a group of paintings by the English artist William Hogarth and imagined that they could be fashioned into scenes for an opera.
Scenes were separated by a dropped curtain and introduced with thrilling little fanfares, mixing Baroque festivity with the acid of Pulcinella’s signature sour notes. The only modernist touch, reminding listeners of Stravinsky’s atonal, serial, and difficult works, is the prelude before the dark graveyard scene, when the black-coated Shadow, having served the now-destitute Tom for an agreed-on year and a day, demands his pay — Tom’s death. Finley’s voice is fully formed and controlled, but his persona was without the Satanic charisma of, say, Samuel Ramey.
The love that Tom suddenly remembers he has for Anne (Queen of Hearts in their impromptu card game) saves him, but as Shadow disappears into the fiery grave, he curses Tom with insanity. Hence Tom’s final scene with Anne, who visits him in an asylum, with beige set gently lighted by Jennifer Tipton.
Tipton collaborated with costume designer Judy Levin, and lighting pointed up dramatically costumed scenes: in a brothel, with Margaret Lattimore as a lascivious madam, clever color use conveys opulence through sumptuous reds and sparkling formal blacks. The auction house where Tom’s possessions are sold to pay his debts was costumed in black and white, and lit like the Ascot Gavotte in My Fair Lady.
In morality-play tradition, the opera ends as the main characters, dead or alive, prance onto the stage to caution the audience that this story shows how the Devil finds work for idle hands. Choristers, who had appeared as whores, auction bidders, and asylum inmates, loped across the stage waving to the audience.
Levine, in his hydraulic lift, could not bow onstage with the cast. A way should be found to get him up there. He’s earned it many times over.
Final performances of The Rake’s Progress are at 7:30 p.m. EST May 4 and 1 p.m. May 9. For information, go here.
Note: Gerald Finley will give a free master class at Juilliard at 4 p.m. on May 7, to be streamed live here.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.