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All Coming Together

August 7, 2005

Jason Karn (Tom Rakewell)
Ailyn Pérez (Anne Trulove)

Baba the Turk (Kendall Gladin)

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We Appreciate

By James Keolker

Opera might be called the Devil's art, there is so much difficulty in the details. Casting must be dead-on, with vibrant voices (looking the part helps, too); there as the issues of the conductor (masterly in the composer's lyric style), the director (musical while illuminating the libretto's intent), and such matters as the capability of the chorus, the aptness of the production design, the costumes, wigs and makeup. And let us not forget the lighting designer, the stage management, and the administration that puts the whole package together.

Well, the Devil was in excellent hands (as was the appreciative audience) this past Sunday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco for a triumphant production of Stravinsky's challenging Rake's Progress, as performed by this year's Merola Opera Program.

The casting could hardly have been better, with the young, coltish tenor Jason Karn as Tom Rakewell and soprano Ailyn Pérez as his shy, sweet-voiced Anne Trulove. Karn dominated his lengthy music, from eager, callow youth (who discovers he has inherited a fortune) to his mad demise in bedlam, having squandered both life and love.

The role of Anne is more difficult, for she must maintain her faith despite her humiliations. But Stravinsky, and his librettist W. H. Auden, give her a fine opportunity to voice her doubt in the aria “O heart, be stronger,” and Pérez took full advantage, opening up her lustrous voice in a powerful rendering of momentary disillusionment.

Jason Karn (Tom Rakewell)
Jeremy Galyon (Nick Shadow)

The couple was in the thrall of Nick Shadow, the Devil's man, sung with great style by bass-baritone Jeremy Galyon. A tall, powerful singer, Galyon was a fascinating mix of charm and malevolence, his dark voice well-suited to Stravinsky's gnarly rhythms. Baritone Liam Moran sang Anne's father, Trulove.

Giving the opera its outrageous comic balance was a trio of equally accomplished singers. Kendall Gladen was a fine babbling Baba, the bearded Turk whom Tom mischievously marries, the mezzo-soprano striding the stage like a young Shirely Verrett. Soprano Allison Watson was grand in voice and demeanor as the aptly-named Mother Goose, the dominatrix madame of the London whorehouse. And tenor Matthew O'Neill was the auctioneer, Sellem, who conducted his sale with the zeal of an evangelist.

Stravinsky's opera was inspired by the 18th-century series of engravings entitled “The Rake's Progress” by the moralist painter William Hogarth. Thus his score of 1951 is a musical mixture of knotted modernism and curlicue rococo references. It's a tricky blend to sound smoothly, but conductor Judith Yan led her musicians with great power and style.

Deft, witty blending of times, places, operas

Adding to the success of the production was the fine direction of James Marvel, who likewise caught the opera's mixture. There were cell phones as well as a servant in livery, and Tom's get-rich-quick machine that he believes can turn stones into bread was a stainless steel toilet (giving Auden's text, “a word to all my friends, wherever you sit” — sung aside to the audience by Shadow — a jolt of unexpected meaning). But this was far from one of those dreary “updatings,” rather a thoughtful blend of Stravinsky's own times with that of Mozart. And Marvel wittily illuminated Stravinsky's references to Don Giovanni (another tale of a rake), with a near-comic graveyard scene and frequent use of the Devil's (and the Commandatore's) fateful handshake.

Set designer Eric Allgeier created an 18th century frame with several scenic units, while costume designer Anna Wronsky humorously dressed Anne in a child-like dress from the 1700s, Tom in London-mod, the Devil in striped trousers and leather, and the chorus in 1950 grey suits and dresses. Christopher Maravich designed sculptural lighting as well as splendid effects with back-wall projections, an ominous, slow-moving moon especially effective.

The chorus articulated Auden's tricky, rhythmic lyrics well, especially as the boys and bawds in “Soon dawn will glitter outside the shutter,” and in the canonic “Leave all love and hope behind.” (It is interesting to realize how indebted Steven Sondheim is to this over-looked stage poet.)

Stravinsky's score has mellowed some, now that audiences have heard similar mixtures in Candide and Sweeney Todd. But it was the mastery of these young singers and their production crew that brought this work so vividly to life. It is heartening to hear these fresh, young talents carry on opera in a time of such cultural difficulty. And that is thanks in large measure to the administration of the Merola Opera Program, and its many supporters and sponsors.

(Dr. James Keolker is a frequent writer and lecturer on opera and is currently on faculty as professor of opera studies at the Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco.)

©2005 James Keolker, all rights reserved