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Review: 'Rake's Progress' a compelling tale with a superb cast

| Sunday, May 1, 2016, 1:42 p.m.
Financially ruined from the failed bread machine, Tom Rakewell’s possessions are put up for auction by Sellem (Keith Jameson), in Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Rake's Progress.'
David Bachman Photography
Financially ruined from the failed bread machine, Tom Rakewell’s possessions are put up for auction by Sellem (Keith Jameson), in Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Rake's Progress.'
Nick Shadow (David Pittsinger) convinces Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader) to marry bearded lady Baba the Turk, in Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Rake's Progress.'
David Bachman Photography
Nick Shadow (David Pittsinger) convinces Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader) to marry bearded lady Baba the Turk, in Pittsburgh Opera's 'The Rake's Progress.'

Sixty-five years after its world premiere and 63 years after its U.S. premiere, Igor Stravinsky's opera “The Rake's Progress” finally received its due locally when Pittsburgh Opera presented it for the first time.

Given the many layers of excellence of the April 30 performance at the Benedum Center, Downtown, one might say it was worth the wait. But the delightful performance also emphasized how unjustified those decades of neglect were.

“The Rake's Progress” was presented in the celebrated David Hockney production, which was created in 1975. Pittsburgh Opera acquired the production for merely the cost of trucking it from San Francisco Opera. Stravinsky and librettists W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman were inspired to create the opera by a series of engravings by William Hogarth. Hockney seized on that visual style to create his set, costumes and wigs with cross-hatching line drawing. Although more than 40 years old, Hockney's production belies its age. It's physically in great shape, looking bright, crisp and clean.

Stravinsky wrote the opera near the end of his lengthy neoclassical period. He was most influenced by the operatic example of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — and not only “Cosi fan tutte.” Yet Stravinsky's arias, ensembles and even the minuet for chorus in the final scene sound always like Stravinsky, as will his writing in the 12-tone style he pursued a little later in the 1950s.

Tenor Alek Shrader brought much more than good looks to playing Tom Rakewell. He developed the role with knowing details of characterization as it moves from a naive and self-centered young man to one who's beaten down by his follies and is ultimately a person whose fate moves us deeply. He sang with authority and admirably clear definition, as well as small modification of tonal color depending on the dramatic context.

Soprano Layla Claire was the thoroughly winning Anne Truelove, who is left behind by Tom when he goes to squander an inheritance in London. She shaped her lines with a gloriously open and fluid top register, and in addition to the sheer beauty of her singing, Claire found ways to give her character more human dimension than it often receives.

Bass-baritone David Pittsinger was riveting as Nick Shadow, a character not in the Hogarth etchings. Shadow is a mixture of alter ego and the devil, or the devil that's in all of us, who leads Rakewell astray at every turn and ultimately demands his soul at the end of a year of service. Pittsinger was suave in a sinister way, but leaned effectively into key vocal details, including emphatic accents, right through to his solo in the epilogue.

Laurel Semerdjian and her velvety mezzo-soprano voice were superb as Mother Goose, the madam at the brothel Rakewell enjoys in the first scene of Act 2. The production does not shy away from sexuality when Mother Goose decides to have Rakewell for herself.

Jill Grove was fabulous as Baba the Turk, the bearded lady Shadow suggests Rakewell marry. She commanded the stage physically and sang with flamboyance just right for her character. Grove was comically superb in the scene where Anne Truelove discovers her old boyfriend has married someone else — a moment in which Claire was also very effective, but in a tragic way. The mixture of comedy and tragedy was one of Mozart's great strengths, and one at which Stravinsky and Auden also excelled.

The three smaller roles were well handled, too. Wei Wu brought the right degree of stuffiness to father Truelove, although he was sometimes underpowered. Keith Jameson offered a well defined and well sung Sellem, who runs the auction when the property of Rakewell and his wife is being sold to pay off his debt. Finally, Matthew Scollin combined the wonderful depth of his voice with unflappable dignity as the Keeper of the Madhouse to which Rakewell is confined at the end of the opera and his life.

Conductor Antony Walker led a vibrant, sensitive and well-paced performance. Stravinsky' orchestral writing is the unnamed character in the opera, which enlivens and comments on the action.

Walker prepared the Opera Orchestra extremely well. Stravinsky's writing is tricky in many ways, but the musicians played it with surprising assurance, especially for a first performance. However, Walker chose to employ a more legato style than Stravinsky preferred, which is a separate issue from articulation in fast passages that will presumably tighten over the run of performances.

“The Rake's Progress” will be repeated at 7 p.m. May 3, 7:30 p.m. May 6, and 2 p.m. May 8 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $12 to $157. Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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