Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress

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I’m more of a theater buff and musical follower than an Opera lover, yet I’ve seen several around the world over the years, including London, Sydney, Boston, New York, LA and San Francisco. Now that I’m a west coaster, I’m tuning into the upcoming SF Opera House season, where Rake’s Progress opened Friday night, simultaneously playing with Macbeth. Madama Butterly starts next week and I already have tickets for Handel’s Ariodante in June.

Two days ago, the San Francisco Chronicle gave Rake’s Progress mixed reviews and I couldn’t have felt more at peace with the fact that he thought soprano Laura Aikin, the main female character, gave a sensitive but small-toned performance as the main character Anne.

Says the Chronicle, “she dispatched her show-stopping Act 1 aria, “Quietly, night,” with tender precision and (in the ensuing cabaletta) blazing athleticism, but too much of her performance bordered on inaudibility.” I sat there thinking, “polite.” While she gave us a glimpse into what her voice was capable of, her delivery was emotionless and bland.

Lepage and co-director Sybille Wilson transplant Stravinsky’s 18th century England original to the 1950s American West. Lead Tom Rakewell, played by William Burden, comes across as a soulless young boy without much gut, character or drive.

The devil (Mephistophelean Nick Shadow), leads him to London, where the stage then turns Hollywood, making fun of true love and urban life. I couldn’t help but think of a poor attempt at turning Sunset Boulevard into a cynical opera, but with a youthful innocent female partner who has no wit or energy.

So while Ann had a voice that could have likely carried me in another opera, the lyrics they gave her had me cringing after every word, bored with her in the first half hour and frustrated with the insanity of it all in the last 20 minutes.

The Chronicle calls Denyce Graves’ Baba’s voice patchy, but full of theatrical grandeur. Baba the Turk, who became Tom’s wife, was a strikingly interesting black woman with a beard that resembled the old man in Karate Kid. And yes, she was full of theatrical grandeur in ways that no other character came close to, not even Burden or the infamous James Morris who played Nick Shadow.

While the Chronicle turns to the production itself as a main source of the problem (in the end, I have to agree), it was also the lack of authenticity and connection by two out of the five main characters that left me feeling emotionless. I’m not sure I ever remember feeling emotionless at the end of any opera despite the fact that this was attempting to do just that. Or was it?

Where I also agree with the review is here: “for all its theatrical vitality, and for all the genuine wit and resourcefulness on display in individual scenes, this production never quite makes the case for its basic premise. For every inspired moment in which a plot detail is reimagined or reconfigured, Lepage winds up spending just as much time bending over backward dealing with the narrative consequences.”

That said, Carl Fillion’s set designs and Etienne Boucher’s lighting effects were just right. I have my hopes on the Spring and Summer performances.