Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress
On Saturday I went to see the San Francisco Opera production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. His first opera and a masterpiece of his neo-classical period, this production was set in 1930’s America and not seventeenth century England, and was full of entertaining special effects (such as an inflatable movie set trailer). Robert Lepage must be commended for the mise en scene and Donald Runnicles for the superb musical execution.
Above you can see and hear Dawn Upshaw’s performance of Anne Trulove’s famous aria from this opera. It was sung superbly on Saturday by Laura Aiken. William Burden was also competent in his portrayal of the protagonist, Tom Rakewell.
The actual theme of The Rake’s Progress combines comedic and Faustian overtones. Basically, the story is that boy meets girl, boy wins fortune and goes to the city, boy loses girl, boy loses fortune, boy almost loses soul and does lose his mind, and gets girl in the end when it’s too late (whew!) The moral is that idle hands and quick fortunes are not the surest way to prosper in life. The work is a collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden, who wrote the superb libretto. Both were trying to return to a simpler classicism in a fresh and pleasing way, and the work is a delight throughout.
In the program notes, I thought this quote by Stravinsky was especially illuminating:
In fact, these great [musical] progressivists sought to abolish or transform the very clichés I had tried to re-establish, though my restitutions were by no means intended to supersede their now conventionalized reforms.
Indeed, one can make too much of revolutions and innovations. I feel much sympathy with being a “curmudgeonly contrarian” as Auden is described in the program notes. If there is a problem with art these days, it is that it is too ideological and too obsessed with being “original” or “transgressive”. In Stravinsky’s music or Auden’s libretto, one feels the simple delight of unpretentious creation, without the self-consciousness of being an “innovator”. That attitude would be a healthy one in many facets of our lives.