Time to rethink `Rake's Progress'

Review: Fine production by Peabody Opera Theatre ironically reveals Stravinsky's flawed music.

November 16, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Received wisdom about Stravinsky's only full-length opera, "The Rake's Progress," is that it is a masterpiece: the crowning achievement of the composer's three-decade-long exploration of neo-classical musical language. But last week's fine production of the opera by the Peabody Opera Theatre left me with questions about how good "The Rake" actually is.

Let me add immediately that, while I have always enjoyed this work, my experiences with it had previously been confined to records. Let me also add that I always prefer listening to opera in the theater -- even if a production is not particularly good -- than I do in my living room. It's all the more peculiar, therefore, that I didn't enjoy "The Rake" last Thursday in Friedberg Hall as much as I do in my Hampden digs.

For this was a superb production. Director Roger Brunyate vividly captured not only the opera's 18th-century milieu, which was suggested to the composer by Hogarth's celebrated cycle of paintings, but also its Faust theme, which found its way into "The Rake" through the work of its librettists, W. H. Auden and his protege, Chester Kallman.

This production was equally distinguished musically. Conductor Hajime Teri Murai had meticulously prepared the young players in the Peabody Symphony. Matters of balance, clarity of texture, articulation and rhythmic character were carefully attended to; and the enthusiasm with which the orchestra responded to the score's energy was infectious.

The same could be said about the production's cast of singer-actors. Andrea Edith Moore was a vulnerable, believable Anne Truelove. Taylor Armstrong, whose lovely head voice suggested the makings of a genuine Handelian tenor, made an earnest Tom -Rakewell. Jason Hardy brought a sense of menace to Nick Shadow. Audrey J. Babcock was witty and funny as Baba the Turk. Jeff Tarr (as Anne's father), Michele Imes (Mother Goose) and Taylor Wallace Brickley were all first class.

So why didn't I enjoy this production more?

I could say that it was because of the hall.

Because it is a resonant space, Friedberg is kind to instrumental music and less kind to vocal music. Clarity of diction is almost impossible to achieve in Friedberg -- and "The Rake's Progress" demands it.

But it should demand it no more than do the operas of Benjamin Britten -- several of which I have thoroughly enjoyed in Friedberg. More than any other important operatic composer I know, Britten was inspired by the quality of a literary text.

About the importance of a libretto's words, one well-known librettist once wrote: "The verses which the librettist writes are not addressed to the public but are really a private letter to the composer. They have their moments of glory, the moment in which they suggest to him a certain melody; once that is over, they are as expendable as infantry to a Chinese general: they must efface themselves and cease to care what happens to them."

The writer is Auden, co-librettist of the "The Rake." What he says about librettos is generally right. Most of the time, one can't understand the words sung in an opera. What matters is the music.

My problem Thursday night with "The Rake" was not with Peabody's production, or even with Friedberg Hall, but with Stravinsky. He wrote second-rate music for a first-rate libretto.

`Vespers' at Basilica

Claudio Monteverdi (1567- 1643) was the first great operatic composer. His greatest non-operatic work is "Vespro della Beata Vergine," popularly known as the "1610 Vespers." It will be performed at Baltimore's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin on Dec. 7, at 8 p.m. by conductor Thomas Hetrick, the King's Noyse of Boston and several soloists. Tickets are free, though a gift to the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust Inc. is suggested. To order tickets, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Monteverdi Tickets, c/o the Basilica of the Assumption, 408 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21201. Call: (410) 727-3564.

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