Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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The Devil’s Details Part I – The Cox-Hockney ‘Rake’s Progress’

March 23rd, 2006

This two-part essay attempts to address four seemingly disparate issues. The first part celebrates a great interpretation of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” and begins a discussion of why that opera does not appear to be a candidate for the Standard Opera repertory, and certainly will never become an operatic “warhorse”. The second part will compare the opera’s demonic character, Nick Shadow, with Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust”, and begin an analysis of what may be undervalued strengths of Gounod’s treatment of the “Faust” legend.

The charms of Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, “The Rake’s Progress” are abundantly in evidence in the John Cox-David Hockney 1975 Glyndebourne Production (now owned by the San Francisco Opera), available on DVD.

[Below: John Cox, left, in conversation with David Hockney, relating to the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival revival of their production of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress; edited image, based on a photograph by Martin Godwin at the Guardian.]

The opera, unlike some 20th century works, proves to be inherently singable, with set pieces, containing snatches of melody (almost never fully formed) for the three principals, Tom Rakewell (played effectively in the DVD by Leo Goeke), Nick Shadow (in a bravura performance by Samuel Ramey, unlikely soon to be excelled), and Ann Truelove (nicely sung by Felicity Lott).

The opera also contains vivid character parts – most famously Rakewell’s bizarre new bride, Baba the Turk (here played by the veteran Met star Rosalind Elias), the Auctioneer Sellem (John Fryatt) and the harlot Mother Goose (Nuala Willis). Richard van Allen plays the rather bland father figure, Truelove.

The colorful sets are vintage Hockney, where every element reflects the closely placed lines and curves that are an engraver’s basic technique. Worthy of special mention is the color palette that Hockney uses to costume his characters and the flow of action by director John Cox, who respects and appreciates the opera. Bernard Haitink conducts the Glyndebourne Orchestra. It is hardly imaginable that a more loving presentation of the piece could be recorded. Any person who wishes to become acquainted with the piece should seek out this DVD (available to Netflix subscribers).

[Below: the front curtain for the Hockney production of “Rake’s Progress”, shown here at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Those not now familiar with the opera who do avail themselves of the opportunity to see an excellent performance on DVD, will include a number of people who find the opera not to their taste. Some may regard the opera as having the feel of a homework assignment for a collegiate musicology class, with instructions to analyze how the contrivances of Stravinsky’s “neoclassical” period differ from other mid-20th century works, or from the periods of time when the composer was one of the great iconoclasts of the musical forms of romanticism.

In fact, the opera would fit nicely in a joint project between a college’s Department of Music and Department of Literature. Stravinsky’s librettist team was headlined by the poet W. H. Auden, and the libretto provides lots of opportunity (and homework assignments) on what Auden thinks about free will vs. determinism or whatever. The opera might be considered a sophisticated and intellectual work, in a way that Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” could never be, yet it is impossible (at least for the devotee of the great 19th century operas) to think of the music as sensuous, as one very well might regard many parts of “Trovatore”.

[Below: Miah Persson as Anne Trulove in David Hockney’s conceptualization of the Bedlam scene; edited image, based on a production prhotograph from the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival.]

Stravinsky testified that Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” was the opera he had most in mind when composing “The Rake’s Progress”. This reveals the thought processes of a warrior in the midst of 20th century battles in the European musicological wars, but makes little sense to a devotee of the standard opera repertory. Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, produced two works – “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Cosi Fan Tutte” – that have the feel of real people working out real “relationship” problems. There is no need to introduce, as the “Rake’s Progress” (as well as Mozart and da Ponte’s “Don Giovanni”) does, the supernatural.

Some might consider this line of reasoning as a curious method of valuing operas, but I will argue it goes to the heart of any explanation as why the “standard repertory”, fluid through the first two and a half centuries in the history of opera, should eventually have settled on a few dozen operas composed between 1786 and 1926. We are not arguing that the supernatural has no place in opera. In fact Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and “The Magic Flute”, Verdi’s “Don Carlos”, virtually all of Wagner, Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” and Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, to name some obvious examples, all contain supernatural elements.

Consider the plot lines of four of the operas mentioned above – “Cosi”, “Nozze”, “Don Giovanni” and “Faust”. A very imaginative writer of contemporary social comedy, such as Marc Cherry – who conceived ABC television’s “Desperate Housewives” – might actually be able to work many of the plot situations in “Nozze” or “Cosi” into the future plot lines of “Housewives”. Conversely, a very imaginative writer of supernatural drama, such as Joss Whedon, who conceived UPN television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the Warner Brothers TV network’s “Angel”, could have written plot elements of either “Don Giovanni” or “Rake’s Progress” into either series. The genres are wrong if you consider the reverse.

And, there are strongly drawn characters in all three of the Mozart-da Ponte operas, which contrast with the two-dimensional comic book characters of the “Rake”, even if no consideration is given to the fact that the melodic invention and musical composition of the three Mozart operas is vastly superior to what Stravinsky offers. One concedes that intellect went into “the Rake’s” musical formulations, but, to paraphrase former Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, “We know ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ and ‘The Rake’s Progress’ is no ‘Cosi fan Tutte'”.

Let’s not compare it with Mozart, but to another opera which dabbles in the supernatural, Gounod’s “Faust”. Most everyone, whatever their opinions of “Faust” and “Rake’s Progress” will concede that both operas contain a character associated with diabolical deeds – Mephistopheles in “Faust” and Nick Shadow in “Rake’s Progress”. They also both have a protagonist, in each case referred to in the work’s title, assigned to the tenor range. In both works, a woman, a soprano, is the love interest of the title character.

So, there are some opportunities to “compare and contrast” the two very different operas. As we begin to contemplate how these trios relate to each other, both in libretto and music, one can begin to appreciate just how extraordinary Gounod’s work is. For that discussion, read “The Devil’s Details — Part II”. (That will be posted within a few weeks.)

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