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.)

In the graveyard scene Tom finally stops whining about how boring his life is and reveals the true wellsprings of his character: a proper Christian terror of the eternal damnation he has brought upon himself, and a transcendent vision of the only force that might save him -- love, the power he has been running away from for the entire opera. Winning the card game by outwitting the Devil, Tom attains insanity rather than damnation, the insanity of a Kierkegaardian believer trapped in the modern world. In Bedlam he is no longer the Rake but calls himself Adonis and speaks like a mythological poet. His redemption comes in the form of a lullaby sung by Anne -- a tune you might walk out of this opera humming.

I think The Rake's Progress redeems itself in Act III because it moves into its own Bedlam -- opera land, a world that in its halfhearted modernist way it has so far resisted. We will not be sentimental (à la Verdi) or sensational (à la Strauss) or emotionally manipulative (à la Puccini), the creators appear to have tacitly agreed. But these manifestations of good taste have little to do with the compelling elements in the opera -- which are precisely sentimental, sensational, and manipulative. How else to describe Baba's unexpected humanity, the dramatic contrivance of the card game, the surrounding of Anne's lullaby with a chorus of madmen? These unexpected descents into vulgarity bring the opera to life and reveal its true emotional center. Not surprisingly, this center springs from the personal experiences of its composer and librettists.

In Bedlam, Tom calls out for Orpheus and Persephone, the mythological subjects of two Stravinsky ballets. The reference feels like an emotional identification rather than an in-joke. But how could the shallow, passive Tom stand in for Stravinsky? Perhaps Nick Shadow is a version of Diaghilev, who transformed Stravinsky from an unknown provincial composer into an international celebrity and also a rootless cosmopolitan, like Tom. Mother Goose's tawdry brothel could then recall the debauched atmosphere of the Ballets Russes. Anne, too good to be true, combines elements of Stravinsky's two wives: Catherine, his plain, pious cousin, whom he married when he was still a student; and the glamorous Vera de Bosset, who became his mistress in 1922 and whom he married in 1940, a year after Catherine's death. With Vera, Stravinsky achieved an idyllic second life in Hollywood, itself a kind of Bedlam. Anne's lullaby is an emblem of their domestic bliss, which Stravinsky may have felt redeemed him after the guilt-ridden dual-household existence he led in France between the wars.

Auden and Kallman, too, brought their personal histories to the opera. Auden met the stunningly handsome eighteen-year-old Kallman in 1939 and decided immediately that he had found the man of his dreams. But Kallman really was a rake, sexually incompatible with Auden and endlessly promiscuous. There ensued a lifelong folie à deux in which Auden played the role of perfect wife to Kallman's philandering husband. The situation made Auden feel both absurd and virtuous. In short, he was Baba the Turk.

BABA was Auden's addition to Hogarth's story, and she has been a source of misunderstanding from the start. According to Robert Craft, Stravinsky's longtime amanuensis, Stravinsky's lawyer advised him to drop the entire project because Baba was a "sexual hoax." Yet homosexual composers didn't seem to appreciate the hoax any more than ostensibly straight critics did. Virgil Thomson praised the opera but predicted -- correctly, as it turned out -- that Baba, "a character drawn from female impersonation," would not be easy to make convincing. Benjamin Britten, whose works are full of homosexual allusions, reportedly termed the opera "perverse." Today, after a decade or more of "gender studies" and androgynous rock stars, one might assume that a bearded lady would no longer kill a show, but perhaps wrongly. As Thomson's remark indicates, there has always been confusion about whether Baba is supposed to be a woman or a man. Last year the Public Broadcasting System showed a Swedish movie of The Rake's Progressin which Baba was clearly a man, sung by a male alto with a short goatee. Instead of solving the problem, the TV movie just showed that in our enlightened age a drag queen is less threatening than a woman with a beard -- and proved that Baba makes no sense at all as a cross-dressed man.

Whatever the personal sources of the character may have been, I think that Baba was Auden's way of embodying his love for the genre of opera in all its glorious absurdity. Baba breathes the spirit of opera itself -- for she is nothing less -- into the dead bones of The Rake. She throws the whole tidy moral universe of The Rake into confusion by showing us how dull it has grown. Morality is fine, she seems to say, but could we have some entertainment, please? And not a moment too soon. She seizes the stage in an ascending series of coups: a grand entrance, a funny patter song, and, before her grand exit, a breathtaking moment of compassion and renunciation that would have made Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who could well have been Auden's model as a librettist, weep with pleasure.

Baba was Auden's joker in the pack, his way of trumping his own moral pessimism by asserting the power of art over nature. Natural order is a recurring theme of The Rake's Progress. The action begins and ends in the spring; Anne's redemptive visit to Bedlam is like Persephone's journey to the underworld, necessary for a renewal of the natural. But at the same time, Tom's fall from grace comes from his pursuit of nature -- not idyllic or mythological nature but the modern understanding of instinctual violence, familiar to readers of Darwin and Freud and viewers of the Nature Channel. The unnatural Baba is the only character in the opera who transcends her moral (and physical) limitations. She graciously renounces any claims to Tom, and thereby makes possible Anne's act of forgiveness. Of course, Baba's grand act of sympathy is just one of her stage turns -- and that is the point. She's the stage mother of us all. With her character Auden -- not so awed by Stravinsky as he claimed -- upstages the rites of spring by showing that although nature goes on from season to season, an opera can change the way we think and feel.

My own fondness for Baba perhaps shows that I remain an armchair opera lover. In the theater Baba remains one of the many enigmatic features of The Rake's Progress that make it seem more like a perverse waxworks opera than like the real thing. I can describe Baba as the spirit of opera, but few directors can sell Baba to the audience, as they can easily sell the character of Zerbinetta, in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, who serves a similar symbolic purpose. There is no getting around the fact that the opera springs from Stravinsky's love-hate relationship with the operatic tradition. His ambivalence about the form separates his three mature operas (Mavra, Oedipus Rex, and The Rake) from those of born theater composers such as Puccini and Strauss, and Berg and Britten as well.

But if I remain hopeful that The Rake's Progress will take its place in the operatic repertory, it is less from studying the score at home than because of my first experience of the opera in the theater, thirty years ago. The Hamburg State Opera presented a revelatory series of modern works, including Berg's Lulu and Gunther Schuller's Visitation, at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, in the summer of 1967. The Rake's Progress was directed by Gian Carlo Menotti, a composer whose conservative view of operatic tradition could not have been further from Stravinsky's. Menotti staged the piece straightforwardly and naturalistically, ignoring the heavy burden of allusion and cleverness. A simple country boy got chewed up by the temptations of the big city. His girlfriend remained faithful to the end. It was pure opera -- and it broke my heart.

David Schiff is a composer and a professor of music at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

Illustration by Andrea Ventura

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; Redeeming the Rake; Volume 280, No. 5; pages 136 - 139.