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August 7, 2012

'The Rake's Progress' gets potent staging from Wolf Trap Opera

Since the death of Puccini, few operas have established a foothold in the standard repertoire. "The Rake's Progress" is one of them.

The 1951 piece boasts a prismatic, rhythmically alive score by Stravinsky, in his most inventive neoclassical mode, and a clever, exceedingly literate libretto by one of the 20th century's greatest poets, W. H. Auden, and his partner, Chester Kallman.

The work, inspired by Hogarth's drawings, operates on various levels. It's an old-fashioned morality tale, with Faustian overtones (and a good deal of wicked comedy), demonstrating how laziness and greed can destroy love and honor.

There's also an argument here for simple country values versus the desensitizing effects of modern urban life, with its commercialism, materialism and hucksterism.

All of this can be richly savored in what easily ranks among ...

the most satisfying Wolf Trap Opera Company productions, musically and theatrically, of the past decade or so.

When "The Rake's Progress" was new, opinions about its worth varied considerably. In some corners of the music world, Stravinsky wasn't modern enough. The composer who had revolutionized the 20th century with "The Rite of Spring" was by this point channeling the spirits of the 18th century, which did not make much sense to those who were following (or trying to follow) Schoenberg.

Theodore Adorno tartly dismissed neoclassicism as "traditional music combed in the wrong direction" (a great line, you have to admit).

Olin Downes, the New York Times critic, revealed the same sort of attitude reviewing the first Metropolitan Opera production of "The Rake's Progress" in 1953.

Downes detected in the score "many different works which other composers were thoughtless enough to write before Mr. Stravinsky made his appearance." The opera was accused by being "artificial, unreal and actually unexpressive ... a study in still-life."

Today, when we are awash in neo-romanticism, objections to neoclassicism may seem rather quaint. But it's worth being reminded of how provocative this musical language once seemed.

Wolf Trap's "Rake" does that in bracing fashion, thanks to a remarkable potency onstage and in the pit.

Eric Barry does impressive work as Tom Rakewell, the young man who deserts his true love -- she's not named Anne Trulovefor nothing -- after being lured to the big, bad city of London by the demonic Nick Shadow.

With his boyish face, Barry captures the naive side of Tom particularly well, and he's adept, too, at conveying the decline into debauchery. The final scene, after Tom has been turned mentally unbalanced thanks to Shadow's parting shot, finds Barry especially affecting.

The timbre of the tenor's voice doesn't reveal the conventional operatic heft, but it's solid from top to bottom. And Barry used his vocal resources with admirable nuance and a touch of sweetness. His diction is exemplary, too, no small matter when dealing with such highly poetic English. (There are supertitles.)

Craig Colclough charges into the role of Shadow. He nimbly reveals the character's combination of charm and smarm, all the while producing a big, robust tone and animating his every phrase.

As Anne, Corinne Winters is a bit detached in her acting, but her singing has terrific impact, thanks, particularly, to the soprano's deep, lush low register. Her account of "Gently, little boat" in the last act has a melting radiance.

Aaron Sorensen is sympathetic and sure as Anne's father. James Kryshak exudes vocal and theatrical character as Sellem, the oily auctioneer who disposes of Tom's worldly possessions. Anthony Michael Reed steps out of the vibrant, polished chorus (prepared by Grant Loehnig) to sing the few lines of the asylum keeper with a warm, promising bass.

In "The Rake's Progress," the opera ain't over 'til the bearded lady sings. That's Baba the Turk, the needy, demanding, facially hairy circus star Tom marries just to thumb his nose at the world.

Margaret Gawrysiak brings a plummy mezzo and abundant comic exuberance to the role, and also taps into character's warmer side in the last act.

The orchestra does polished, vibrant work, conducted by Dean Williamson, who keeps the rhythms crisp, the pacing taut, but with plenty of room for sensitive phrasing in the lyrical episodes. Jeremy Frank handles the harpsichord solos with flair.

Stage director Tara Faircloth sets up the opera as a flashback from the asylum where Tom will end up. A few things seem forced (some business involving a poster of Baba the Turk goes on a little too long, for example), but there are imaginative and absorbing touches throughout.

Erhard Rom's stylish set design, with its architectural and playing card motifs, is complemented by Rooth Varland's vivid, era-jumping and occasionally gender-crossing costumes (the riot of turquoise in the auction scene is delicious) and Robert H. Grimes' expert lighting.

The production effectively brings out the human qualities beneath the satire, the poignant strands woven into the brittle edge of the opera. The masterpiece status of "The Rake's Progress" couldn't be clearer here. The caliber of Wolf Trap Opera shines through just as brightly.

The final performance is Saturday at the Barns at Wolf Trap.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:58 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens, Opera

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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