Redeeming the Rake

Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress is purposely hard to love -- which is why it so amply rewards those who stay for the glorious third act.

IGOR Stravinsky's is one of a handful of operas that I can sing beginning to end from memory -- not that anyone would want to hear me do it. It has held a special place in my affections ever since high school, when I came upon the one recording that existed at the time, with the composer conducting. I didn't actually see the opera until my senior year in college -- but that was not my fault. The opera world has never shared my love for The Rake. Until a new production opens this season, it will not have been performed by the Metropolitan Opera Company since its inaugural performances, in 1953.
My assessment of this work will probably strike most opera fans as perverse. It reflects the fact that I came to know operas from listening to records and studying scores rather than from seeing them in the theater. My opera experience produced its own form of snobbery. From my earliest exposure to the genre I was drawn to Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, Berg's Wozzeck, and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, but not at all to Verdi, Puccini, or Strauss. Let the masses eat steak -- I just wanted caviar. Those austere monuments of modern opera flattered my younger self, making me feel wise beyond my years. I still adore The Rake's Progress, and one of its scenes still brings tears to my eyes, but I can also see why the opera audience finds it off-putting. Like many operas, it is deeply flawed, confused, and contradictory. Its style is inconsistent. Its characters are wooden. Its moral is all too obvious. These are no reasons not to love it and perform it.

In broad outline The Rake's Progress seems soulless and idea-driven. The story of its creation shows that the composer and the librettists were perhaps too self-conscious about producing a modern masterpiece. Stravinsky saw an exhibit of Hogarth's series of paintings in Chicago in 1947 and immediately decided to give the subject an operatic form. Aldous Huxley suggested W. H. Auden as librettist. The project thus brought together the world's most famous composer and the third most famous poet (after T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost) in the English language. The celebrity of the creative team helped to sell the opera for three glamorous world premieres in three languages. Auden wrote Stravinsky that their collaboration would be the greatest honor of his life; he also brought in his friend Chester Kallman as co-librettist. Kallman was an opera fan and a poet, and Auden's faithless lover -- a model Rake.

Despite notable differences in their personal lives and backgrounds, Auden and Stravinsky shared many artistic preoccupations that attracted them to the subject matter. Eighteenth-century London was a natural setting for Stravinsky's neoclassical style -- he had been writing pseudo-eighteenth-century music since Pulcinella, in 1920. The sleaze-crowded urban vignettes of Hogarth's pictures were in tune with Auden's poetic world of the time, as shown in his The Age of Anxiety (1947), an extended closet drama set in wartime New York bars and taxicabs. Stravinsky had just composed an austere Mass, and Auden had returned to the Anglican Church. They shared the pessimistic social perspective implied by the paintings, whose subtext could well be, to use the words of Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Hogarth's, the vanity of human wishes. Put these elements together, however, and you get the offensive Rake's Progress: an overextended musical pastiche, an overly clever libretto, and a grim view of human nature.

IN some ways the reality is even worse than this. Stravinsky's delight in reviving old operatic forms worked wonders in the first act but ran out of steam in the second. The overture of the opera recalls Monteverdi's Orfeo, the opening scene echoes Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, and the dazzling cabaletta at the end of the act is an homage to "Sempre libera," from Verdi's La Traviata. Here Stravinsky demonstrated his genius for speaking through the mannerisms of other composers while always sounding like himself. But as the dramatic line lost itself in plot exposition, he could not sustain the charade. In the second act the pastiches begin to sound like stuff that Mozart and Verdi would have thrown into the trash.

Auden and Kallman's libretto, which often matches the music in its ability to sound both modern and "period," seems overloaded with moral machinery. Not content simply to retell Hogarth's tale of a young man -- here called Tom Rakewell -- who deserts his girlfriend, Anne Trulove, for the temptations of London, only to end in Bedlam, the librettists added several new elements: Tom is lured to London by a Mephistophelian tempter, Nick Shadow, who will act as his servant, his wages to be paid in a year and a day. Tom's descent into depravity is articulated in three fairy-tale wishes. These begin simply with his wish for money but become more philosophically sophisticated -- and more obscure.

Auden and Kallman used the eighteenth-century setting to lampoon trendy twentieth-century ideas. Soon jaded by wealth, Tom wishes for freedom, and Nick convinces him that he will be free only if he performs an existential "acte gratuit," like the murder committed by Camus's stranger. So Tom marries Baba the Turk, a bearded lady. But she soon bores him too, and he dreams that he can both feed the masses and make himself rich with a machine that turns stones, or even crockery, into bread. Having taken aim at existentialism, the librettists targeted materialism: Tom's fantasy parodies the ambitions of England's postwar socialist government and also the pipe dreams of get-rich-quick American capitalism -- too clever by half. Both Baba and the bread machine have proved virtually impossible to bring convincingly to the stage, leaving the opera with a second act that limps from one ineffective scene to the next. Directors have tried to undo the damage by staging the opera in two acts rather than three, splitting the weak second act in two to hide its weaknesses, or cutting much of it altogether -- a move that further confused whatever dramatic thread the story originally had.

FORTUNATELY, though, this paper Rake, so neat and unpleasant, is not what you encounter in the theater, especially if you stay for the third act -- one of the most perfect and most moving in all opera. There are three scenes: a hilarious auction (the one real developed ensemble number in an opera overloaded with solos), a graveyard card game in which Tom gambles for his soul, and a wrenching conclusion in which Anne visits Tom in Bedlam. These encompass comedy, dramatic tension, and lyrical pathos -- and they seem to have nothing to do with the situations or characters in the previous act. Baba the Turk, about to be sold off as an apparently dead curiosity, stops the auction and shows herself to be not a freak of nature but a generous and motherly theater goddess -- like Roseanne when her character shows what a good mom she really is. Baba urges Anne to save Tom even though he is just a "shuttle-headed lad." (Actually, until this point he has seemed more an intolerable cad than a dashing rake.)

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