Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Conductor: James Levine
Producer/Director: Jonathan Miller
Tom Rakewell: Paul Appleby
Nick Shadow: Gerald Finley
Stephanie Blythe: Baba The Turk
Anne Trulove: Layla Claire
There is probably very little ‒ if anything at all ‒ that James Levine can ask from the Met and not get, and luckily for opera buffs in New York City, the return of The Rake's Progress, last seen in 1997, was yet another wish of his that was granted. Although we need to keep in mind that apparently the inclusion of Stravinsky's neo-classical opera in the 2014/2015 season is probably not a sign of the Met branching out into more adventurous territory after all: With only three performances and no live HD broadcast, the powers-that-be obviously did not have high hopes for it.
Still nursing the burn I got from missing out on Dialogue des Carmélites two years ago due to the equally meager number of performances and my extended procrastinating, I got my ticket for The Rake's Progress as soon as they became available and was vastly rewarded on Saturday afternoon as I took my seat in the packed and buzzing opera house. Hmmm... Maybe in these days of constant hand-wringing about the future of opera in general and the Met in particular it would not be a bad idea to get rid of some of the umpteenth reheatings of La bohème or Aida to make room for less rehashed and more exciting productions if you want to keep dedicated opera goers interested, have a chance to attract a new audience and, you know, sell tickets.
As the one and only opera written by avant-garde Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, The Rake's Progress may be considered first and foremost a curiosity, but the fact is the opera can also proudly stand on its own with a surprisingly accessible core that winningly draws from various influences and a moral tale spiked with the occasional touch of laugh-out humor. Beside the presence of James Levine in the pit, the cast sounded almost too good to be true with fast rising star Paul Appleby as the nice young man led astray, unflappable Gerald Finley as the suave Devil and the one and only Stephanie Blythe as paparazzi favorite Baba The Turk.
Young tenor Paul Appleby has always delivered solid performances every time I got a chance to hear him on the Met stage and, it was a real pleasure to hear him tackle such a substantial and nuanced part so compellingly on Saturday. Tom Rakewell is not a gloriously heroic role, but his transformation from naive country bumpkin to depraved city dweller to wrenching lunatic allowed him to convincingly express a wide range of emotions, which he effortlessly did with crystal clear articulation, a strong sense of melody and a truly beautiful voice.
As the Faustian Nick Shadow, established bass-baritone Gerald Finley exuded his natural elegance and also a vague air of menace, just enough to let you know that there will be no happy ending. There was a mysterious darkness surrounding the ever-present character, and you could not take your eyes off of him every time he was onstage, let alone when he was mesmerizingly singing.
The true comic relief of the evening was brought by beloved mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who was unforgettable in her short but irresistible turn as celebrity around town Baba The Turk. From her discreet yet assertive entrance as a bejeweled hand waving outside a coach window to her grand exit storming out of the auction room, you could not but marvel at her sumptuous voice, charismatic presence and impeccable comic timing.
The other female character was much more subdued Anne Trulove, who was sweetly impersonated by soprano Layla Claire. As the simple country girl who loves Tom and will not give him up, this newcomer was all purity, naïveté and devotion all the way to the heart-breaking parting scene.
The chorus was kept happily busy, especially as merry débauchés in the brothel, heartless vultures at the auction and mad inmates in the lunatic asylum, and seemed to have a lot of fun in the splendid costumes they got to wear.
Beside the spot-on singing, this production was also remarkable for its brilliantly imaginative, slightly surrealistic and stylishly understated sets, which were perfectly in tune with the sporadically wacky but still somewhat humanly relatable tale. The opening tableau, for example, featured a tall bare house in which trees grew all the way to the top and a few puffy clouds adorning a serenely blue sky à la Magritte. Strikingly contrasted with this bucolic scene was the fancy nouveau riche city apartment of Act 2, decorated with the worse minimalist taste possible (hanging stuffed shark, anyone?) and incidentally the background of what has to be the most hilarious domestic dispute in opera history.
The music was probably more classical than could have been expected from Stravinsky, with Mozartian melodic power and overall polish, recitative over harpsichord and a finale sung directly to the audience, but still has enough weird rhythms and sharp dissonances to make it unique and fascinating. If the plot had unexpected twists and turns, so did the score, keeping us well aware that we were watching a theatrical performance while still imperceptibly drawing us to the humanity of the story. James Levine was clearly having a ball and his orchestra did not let him down (Would they ever?).
And so the 2014-2015 Met season ended, with a relatively obscure, thoroughly enjoyable and highly popular bang. May the lesson be learnt.