U-M Opera Theatre offering rare chance to see Stravinsky's 'The Rake's Progress'
photo by Peter Smith Photography
“It’s a wonderful opera, but it can be hard to find a way to program it in professional seasons,” says Robert Swedberg, director of the opera studio program at the University of Michigan music faculty and a former director of Opera Orlando and other companies.
Luckily, the situation on a university campus is different. Latest to step into the breach is the University of Michigan University Opera Theatre, whose production of the opera, with Swedberg directing, is set for Thursday through Sunday at Mendelssohn Theatre. The U-M’s Martin Katz conducts the University Philharmonia Orchestra. Doctoral student Yaniv Segal conducts Sunday’s performance. The opera is double cast.
The U-M “Rake” is progressing quite nicely, Swedberg said in a recent phone call. “I’ve been very impressed with the musical preparation. It’s a difficult piece to to sing. It’s not atonal, but it has tricky harmonies and bizarre vocal lines that leap around in unusual ways. I’m very proud of these students.”The opera is unusual for more than its vocal lines.
For one thing, it is Stravinsky’s only full-length opera. For another, conductor Katz, who is also a collaborative pianist with unparalleled knowledge of vocal music, has said it’s the only opera he can think of that was inspired by artwork.
Katz owns a set of the etchings that inspired “Rake”: Hogarth’s 18th century series, “A Rake’s Progress.” Created as an illustrated story, the series traces the rise and fall of the spendthrift Tom Rakewell, who succumbs to a life of debauchery in London, ending up in debtors prison and then, having gone mad, in Bedlam.
The Hogarth etchings may have inspired Stravinsky, but the opera’s libretto, by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, leads Tom on his downward spiral by its own diabolical path.
Tom is a callow fellow who is convinced that good fortune will simply come his way. His loving fiancee Anne Trulove stands by him, but her father is not so easily swayed. When a mysterious stranger, Nick Shadow, announces that Tom has inherited a fortune from an unknown relative, Tom willfully abandons Anne and sets off to London.
Once there, the gullible Tom is lured by Shadow into a wild life. As each incident leads to increased unhappiness and deepening humiliation, Tom is unable to bring himself to return to Anne, even though she attempts to save him. When the devilish Shadow offers him a way out, Tom finds himself in a game of chance with extraordinarily high stakes.
Though the protagonist’s path is ever downward, the opera itself is not without humor, particularly in scenes with the wife Tom takes in London, Baba the Turk, a bearded lady; and as befits an opera with a devil as foil, it has its share of “energy and drama and spooky stuff, particularly in the graveyard scene,” noted Swedberg. There is also aching lyrical beauty to be found, for example in Anne’s aria “No Word from Tom.”
Acknowledging the opera’s 18th century origins, and its neo-classical structure, the costumes, by Christianne Myers, hew to the 18th century. Guest scenic designer Russ Jones, from Purdue University, has created a set that, via projections (by guest Lisa Buck), takes fragments of the original etchings and morphs them into, well, living color, using a German Expressionist palate.
The etchings, of course, were a warning about excess. The opera, too, has a moral, one that comes through in an epilogue after the three acts and in what Swedberg calls “little sidebars that Nick has with the audience, about business and investments and the things people are suckered into.”
“I think it will resonate with 21st century audiences,” Swedberg said.