Rake’s Progress: A Night of Opera in London

Posted on January 27th, 2010 by

I have never been to an Opera performance before. I admit that most of my notions of opera performances had come from old cartoons—top hat wearing aristocrats watching a heavy-set woman in a Viking helmet belt it out with an exaggerated vibrato came to mind. It seemed to be a thing of the past often lampooned. Luckily, I knew better than to carry this caricature with me into London’s historical Royal Opera House when our class attended a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s 20th century opera, “Rake’s Progress”on January 26th. What we witnessed was not classical by any means; no one donned top hats or mink fur in the audience and the performance itself was a revived adaptation set against the backdrop of West Coast America in the 1950’s.

Still, what I did bring with me to the performance was the premonition that opera is an art form that has become much too slow for a culture that craves instant gratification and prefers things fast-paced. This performance, more so than any other that we had been to, worried me most. I was worried about not understanding something so foreign to me—something that commands a great deal of respect for being so old and fabled. After all, I had never been to a performance before. Nonetheless, I tried to walk into the Royal Opera House with an open mind.

Earlier that day before the performance, we got to have a look at the 1773 paintings by William Hoggarth upon which Stravinsky based this opera. Recognizing that these paintings were considerably old, the choice of director Robert Lepage  to place the setting in the 1950’s may seem surprising. However, it was to my pleasant surprise that this jump to a newer age presents a more relatable tale while not straying too far from Stravinsky’s original vision. The original plot, aside from few anachronistic adjustments, is still largely intact.

The story tells of the fall of the young Tom Rakewell, whom at the temptation of the diabolical antagonist, Nick Shadow, leaves America and his beloved girl, Anne Trulove, behind at the prospect of fame and fortune in London. As he pursues a career as a film star, Tom becomes victim to the whims of Nick Shadow, whom is later revealed to be the devil. Anne Trulove resolves to chase after Tom who has become immersed in a lifestyle of vanity. Now married to the illustrious Baba the Turk, Tom tells Anne to go back home. Eventually Tom regrets the life he has chosen to lead and resents the guidance of Nick Shadow. Although he frees himself from Nick’s control, Tom plummets into madness.

More than anything, the new setting puts attention on the thirst for celebrity status in today’s society. The archetypal characters are transposed into fitting entities of celebrity culture. Even in the 21st century the audience connects with the themes which were inspired by the early days of television and film. Adjustments were even made to the music to match the adaptation. Conductor, Ingo Metzmacher, leads a score that combines both twists of 18th century and 20th century music in an energetic mix that captures both the spirit of the 50’s and the brilliance of Stravinsky.

What has not changed in this rendition of “Rake’s Progress” is the hallmark focus on morality. Though Stravinsky wrote this opera in a different age, the message could not be timelier for today’s society. The line, “For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds a work to do” resonated with me as it surely did with the rest of the audience . This ability to withstand the tests of time has always been a characteristic of great art, and it is to the credit of director, Robert Lepage, for keeping “Rake’s Progress” important even today.


 

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