'Rake's Progress' combines talents of Stravinsky, Auden and Hockney
Once again, Pittsburgh Opera has saved its most adventuresome staging for the end of the season with the celebrated David Hockney production of “The Rake's Progress.”
Its composer, Igor Stravinsky, is best known for his ballet scores. “The Firebird,” “Petrouchka” and “The Rite of Spring” all were written in his youth before World War I and made him famous.
But opera was in his blood, because his father was the leading operatic bass in St. Petersburg when Stravinsky was growing up. The future composer spent many nights enjoying opera in the theater. Yet, he didn't write his only full-length opera, “The Rake's Progress,” until he was 69.
Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of “The Rake's Progress” April 30 to May 8 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
The opera is a parable inspired by a series of 18th century engravings by William Hogarth called “The Rake's Progress.” The title has its irony because the rake's “progress” is a descent to a madhouse.
Stravinsky saw the Hogarth engravings in 1947, and, on the advice of his friend Aldous Huxley, turned to poet and experienced librettist Wystan Hugh Auden for the words. The opera was first performed in 1951 in Italy.
Hockney's production of Stravinsky's opera was created in 1975 and uses the line strokes and crosshatching of engraving for not only the set but also the costumes and wigs. It so perfectly fits this opera that Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn refers to the “triumvirate” of Stravinsky, Auden and Hockney.
Stravinsky's musical style in “The Rake's Progress” is neoclassical. Conductor Antony Walker notes that neoclassicism in architecture arose in the 18th century, “as a reaction against highly ornate structures of the baroque and rococo, which went back to the clean lines of Greek and Roman styles. Neoclassicism in music comes in the 20th century from composers wanting to get away from the over-complexities and dissonance of the way modernism was going and, instead, harkens back to the halcyon days of the classical period, to Mozart and Haydn.”
After Stravinsky and Auden agreed to work together, the composer took the librettist to see Mozart's “Cosi fan tutte,” the only music Stravinsky listened to while writing the opera.
Walker hears a lot of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a bit of Franz Joseph Haydn and more than a little of Gioachino Rossini in “The Rake's Progress.” In fact, he says he's found five specific references to “Cosi,” but all subtle because of harmonic or rhythmic changes.
“Stravinsky was not trying to re-create Mozart or Haydn, but tried to use their style and their personalities as a starting point for writing a piece that would be very 20th century and very daring,” Walker says.
The conductor says this opera has humor and darkness, but in the final scene, when protagonist Tom Rakewell “renounces everything for love, it's so moving and you don't expect that. You're dazzled by every scene, but then the emotions really hit you at the end. I think it's a brilliant piece.”
Tenor Alek Shrader says Rakewell is among his most favorite roles.
“The music's perfect in being both interesting to the ear and absolutely singable, which is something I'm appreciative for in the modern-music realm,” he says.
The drama has an easily digestible message but it is told in a complex and interesting way, in Shrader's opinion.
“Tom begins life as a simple guy living in the country. He's sort of decided he's just going to let life happen. He's confident that's enough,” Shrader says. “But the more he learns about life, the more he gets what he wants, the worse for wear he becomes. It takes him a lifetime of tragedy and misfortune to realize that all he ever really needed is love, which he had at the very beginning of the opera.”
Soprano Layla Claire says the challenge of performing Anne Truelove is that she's an idea or a symbol.
“You have to portray good and love. She's the angel on the rake's shoulder. But I also have to make her a human being with emotions and a sympathetic character,” Claire says. “The tricky part is peeling away some of her more instinctive human reactions. I would react differently when he breaks her heart, as for example, when she finds out he's married to someone else, Baba the Turk, the bearded lady. I need to show she's hurt by this news but have to go immediately to a loving reaction. Anne is a pure character playing the idea of love.”
She says the biggest challenges in Stravinsky's vocal writing are the “interval leaps, which are very extreme. In one phrase you can have a note in the very lowest register going to the highest soprano register. Finding the line within that means I need to focus on my breath and try to find legato.”
Claire is thrilled that “The Rake's Progress” is the rare 20th-century opera with a cabaletta, the final “show off” section of arias.
“It's great fun, a triumphant moment,” the soprano says. “She's going to save her man. It's extremely fun to sing and is well written. And you get a splendid high C at the end, so it's a favorite aria of many sopranos.”
The one major character in the opera who is not in Hogarth's engravings is Nick Shadow, who will be performed by bass-baritone David Pittsinger. It will be his 13th appearance with Pittsburgh Opera, having made his debut in 1986. Pittsinger has sung Nick Shadow 100 times around the world, including at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
He first performed the Hockney production in 1992 and says it helped him define his character. Shadow is a bad influence on Rakewell, to be sure and can be played as the devil, a character Stravinsky presented in “A Soldier's Tale,” or an alter ego.
“Nick, for me, has gone through a real change over the course of my experiences with different productions,” Pittsinger says. “Alter egos aren't difficult to embrace, but, sometimes, when a devil is played as a supernatural person, it's often very dark and foreboding. We wonder, why would anyone follow that and find it attractive? We all have the struggle between good and evil, or the easy way out, in ourselves.”
Pittsburgh Opera now owns the Hockney production, which was acquired for just the cost of trucking when San Francisco Opera decided it could no longer afford to store it. Hahn says it arrived in the summer of 2014 in excellent condition — not only the sets, but also the costumes and even the wigs.
“The Rake's Progress” and the Hockney production of it are close to Hahn's heart, dating to his time at San Francisco Opera.
“My background is also in English literature,” Hahn says, “so W.H. Auden is one of my great loves. He was a strange, complicated and brilliant mind. That he would join forces with Stravinsky was right up my aesthetic alley. It was also done with enormous reference to the 18th century, both visually through painting and Hogarth, but also through the literature of the 18th century, with people like Swift and Pope.
“For me, it embodies the perfect mid-century collaboration of great creative minds. When you add David Hockney to that mix, it is as near a perfect combination of collaborators for a work like this that I could imagine.”
Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.