A Radical Rake

John Bender on November 27, 2007
Opera audiences the world over live under the dominion of stage directors and dramaturges who relocate classic works to places and times remote from the originals and even rewrite major plot events. Such attempts at innovation too often reveal more about the creative desperation of their authors than their cleverness. The current season in San Francisco alone has seen the heroine in Tannhäuser strangled by the hero's best friend as she prays for eternal salvation. And a Lady Macbeth is on stage this week, not sleepwalking but flailing about in a mirrored cube the size of a Tokyo condo, having helped murder a king who looks like the mummy of a child pharaoh wrapped in gold gauze. But when a genuine theatrical talent like Robert Lepage turns a classic on its head, our own sense of its greatness is awakened. He goes straight to the emotional core of each scene, while the stage imagery and action outwardly project this inner truth with crisp, clutter-free intensity.
Laura Aikin (Anne Trulove) and William Burden (Tom Rakewell)

Photos by Terrence McCarthy

How does he manage the stylized moral satire, based on Hogarth and written by the great poet W.H. Auden, in which a good young man, in love with a better young woman, mysteriously inherits wealth, heads to town, and goes wrong with the help of his own Mephistopheles? His enduring love for the girl points the way as he breaks the Faustian bargain and saves his life by guessing the face of three random cards. Yet in the devil's final curse he is driven mad. Lepage and his team of designers from the theatrical collective in Quebec called Ex Machina shift the settings of Igor Stravinsky's
Rake's Progress (1951) from the 18th century to the glamorous fantasy realms of Hollywood film. The idyllic opening on the Truloves' country estate appears in a vast Texas panorama recalled from Giant — complete with an oil-field pump bringing family wealth to the surface. The wide-screen landscape only heightens the vast potential that lies before Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove. Later, Tom's cynically chosen wife, Baba the Turk, will shimmer in opulent swimwear beside a Beverly Hills pool inspired by Sunset Boulevard. She and all his worldly goods are sold at the Hollywood mansion, where ultimately an auction crowd in chic black evening clothes disport themselves on the terrace. An air of decadence hovers as a model and a bodybuilder prance about.

Characters From the Silver Screen

The Rake and Baba are film personalities, the diabolical Nick Shadow a megaproducer. Anne, always just behind, dashes to save Tom in her little red miniconvertible in front of the movie projection of a freeway, and she finds him with Baba and their limo at the spectacular opening of a film in which the two costar.
William Burden (Tom Rakewell) in the insane asylum
Yes, London is mentioned repeatedly, and anachronisms abound. Tom dunks the tiresome chatter of his Baba in the swimming pool rather than covering her up like a canary. He shows off on a Hollywood film set with an Airstream trailer that pops magically from the stage as a surprisingly convincing inflatable. The graveyard is for old abandoned neon signs, signs that spring to terrifying life at the moment of Nick Shadow's descent to hell. Bedlam is a sanitary, all-white 1950s insane asylum with a huge TV showing the Rake's path to destruction, along with live candids. How does all this work? How can it work? Part of the secret lies in the vivid rethinking of the roles by the singers, with the help of Lepage and his codirector, Sybille Wilson. The cast seems possessed by the parts. Even the brilliant vocalism of James Morris, who has played Nick Shadow superbly for years, now seems new and more menacing. Such intensity might be expected in any radical new production (this one is shared by five opera houses and already has appeared in Brussels and Lyon). Beyond this factor, however, the veil of glamour that Lepage casts over the many episodes goes far to overcome the lack of cohesion in the central scenes that play out Tom's bargain of pleasure. Further, and most crucially, the approach through film nostalgia pushes forward the sweet, romantic side of the opera, as represented by the ever-loyal Anne Trulove. Hers is the most beautiful and heartfelt music, and the Rake, though mad in the end, is attuned to and saved by the love it projects. Conductor Donald Runnicles is at one with this vision. Usually, The Rake's Progress is played to emphasize its acidic, off-balance, and tonally contradictory qualities. We are held at a distance in classic modernist ways. We are asked to think and criticize, not to feel. The opera's emotional syncopations are carried musically by the orchestra and, in the libretto, by Shadow's rejection of duty and reason in favor of pleasure, as connected to Tom's decision to marry Baba, the bizarre bearded lady. (The marvelously histrionic Denyce Graves does sport a light tan beard in this staging but fits the type of the all-out Hollywood diva.)

Rich Beauty of Orchestral Sound

Runnicles, exploiting the splendid richness of sound he has built over the years in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, instead played the score for its astounding tonal variety and all-but-Romantic density. The haunting introduction to the graveyard scene is a Stravinsky masterpiece, but under Runnicles section after section assumed this kind of beauty. It was a lyric approach in which the orchestra sang with the characters and enveloped them in sound. In a real sense, the Anne Trulove dimension of the opera won out. Runnicles revealed the music in a new light for me, no less than Lepage did the drama. It is painful to recall that, having indicated his departure from the company, this great conductor will soon be heard regularly at the Deutsche Oper rather than in San Francisco. William Burden led the fine cast with his clear, bright tenor, and he hurled himself into the title role — especially in the deeply touching (yes, not satiric) final mad scene with Anne. Laura Aikin lent full conviction to Anne's hopeless mission to save Tom, though her voice lacked the brilliant transparency I recall from her Blue Angel in Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise. (It is hard for sopranos to live up to our fantasies of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, who sang the premiere.) Kevin Langan as Trulove, Catherine Cook as Mother Goose, and Steven Cole as Sellem, the auctioneer, all stepped handsomely into their parts. Carl Fillion built his constantly surprising stage designs on a thick platform that continually folded upward and downward to reveal the bar in a Hollywood western being filmed by Shadow and Tom, or the neon sign graveyard, or the swimming pool, or the sunken chamber of the madhouse. Costumes by François Barbeau and lighting by Etienne Boucher were all of a piece with the edgy Ex Machina approach that, along with Runnicles' musical vision, animated this Rake's Progress and places it among the best productions I have witnessed.