Excellent Curtis “Rake” Leaves Doubts in Its Wake

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky: Soloists, Curtis Opera Theatre, Mark Russell Smith (conductor), Prince Theater, Philadelphia, 9.5.2014 (BJ)

Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress

Anne Truelove: Rachel Sterrenberg
Tom Rakewell: Jean-Michel Richer
Truelove: Vartan Gabrielian
Nick Shadow: Thomas Shivone
Mother Goose: Anastasiia Sidorova
Baba the Turk: Lauren Eberwein
Sellem: Mingjie Lei
Keeper of the Madhouse: Sean Michael Plumb

Chorus: Dennis Chmelensky, Terrance Hart (guest artist), Dogukan Kuran, Jamez McCorkle, Emily Pogorelc, Ashley Robillard, Heather Stebbins, Grant Uhle (guest artist)

Director: Jordan Fein
Sets: Amy Rubin
Costumes: Ásta Bennie Hostetter
Lighting: Alejandro Fajardo
Harpsichord: Donald St. Pierre

This was a mostly excellent performance of The Rake’s Progress, and at the same time a disturbing one.

It has long been my experience in reviewing performances of The Rite of Spring that, the better the performance, the less I have to say about it. This is precisely the opposite of the situation with really top-level masterpieces, where the insights of performers call for correspondingly expansive comment on the part of the critic—with The Rite, the performers either get it, or they don’t, and that is pretty much that.

I am tempted to put that perception together with a memory from more than 60 years ago. In 1954, Stravinsky was awarded the Gold Medal of London’s Royal Philharmonic Society. I listened on the radio to the speech of the presenter, the English composer Sir Arthur Bliss, and I can remember as if it were yesterday the frisson of shock that I realized was shared, over the following days, with many commenting musicians at Sir Arthur’s description of the honoree as the profession’s greatest “manipulator of music.”

It was a very bold thing to say in that honorific context, but my own feeling about Stravinsky has come more and more to correspond with the partly negative judgment that is at its core. And that judgment was strengthened for me, at the Prince Theater, by the realization that the very excellence of the performance diminished my enjoyment and admiration of a work I thought I liked a lot. Not to pussyfoot over the matter, the sheer clarity of the singing and the quality of the playing made the work itself seem decidedly less attractive.

Clarity was the watchword of the choral contribution, with diction so good that one really had no need to look at the supertitles, and it was a characteristic also of the singing of this cast’s Tom: sumptuous of tone, tenor Jean-Michel Richer also gave us meticulously enunciated final consonants that were a thing of beauty in themselves. Dramatically, too, he had the measure of the role, from bumptious youth to the devastation of penury and madness. Rachel Sterrenberg sang well too; I thought her an altogether too knowing Anne in the early scenes, but she rose nobly to the expressive challenges of Act 3.

I’m not used to seeing a Nick Shadow who is markedly smaller of stature than his victim, but Thomas Shivone etched in the devilries of the part skillfully, and the Truelove, Mother Goose, Baba the Turk, and Sellem were also excellent, even if the brilliance of the great Hugues Cuénod’s madcap auctioneer in the Venetian world premiere is hard to forget.

An effective set, lighting that made particularly good use of darkness—and costumes and make-up with more than a modicum of feeling for the styles of Hogarth’s time—all enhanced the effect of the production. (The idea of the tiger head that substituted for Tom’s wig in putting a stop to Baba’s chatter was amusing enough, though quicker reactions would have made her silencing and subsequent re-animation even funnier.) I still fail to understand how any man with even a distant idea of good taste could have found Hogarth’s hoydens remotely attractive.

That is an aspect of The Rake’s Progress that has always bothered me (as it does also in the comparably sleazy milieu of Tannhäuser’s Venusberg scene). But it was, as I have suggested, the quality of the singing in particular that made word-setting that is often thought of as cleverly stylized sound instead merely perverse, and it was this that in turn made Stravinsky’s self-consciously stylish opera seem—until the genuinely touching scene in Bedlam—to a large degree merely clumsy and pretentious.

Certainly Mikael Eliasen’s Curtis Opera Theatre deserves congratulations for the strength of its work in this production. Less than expectedly enjoyable, this Rake’s Progress nevertheless provided an illuminating if disillusioning educational experience.


Bernard Jacobson

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