The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Monday, December 03, 2007

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.

12 Comments:

At 11:32 PM, Blogger Patrick said...

I'm not qualified to comment on this; I'm just wondering if you haven't been receiving my e-mails of late, Arturo. Are you still checking your Berkeley account?

 
At 3:51 PM, Blogger AG said...

What a coincidence, I was at the performance too….

What I really loved about this performance was the production. Particular moments stand out, like the beginning, with the big open Texas sky and horizon (and oil well), the huge moon rising before the beginning of “No Word from Tom” and Anne’s father pacing in the background (from inside a dollhouse), the “Don Giovanni”-like scene with neon lights, even in the shape of a rubber duck, used in the background. It was so ‘50s Hollywoodish – all the images could be seen in the movies, that it just added to the layer of cynicism that seems to be at the heart of Auden’s text. But at the same time, like with the moon (Diana, the huntress), using more mythological images too.

I’m usually against updating classics, but I’m not sure “The Rake’s Progress” (as a replica of an 18th century-style opera) is really a classic. Although Stravinsky meant his opera to be Mozartean, I really don’t think the text supports it and the music, generally, lacks a clear melody, as does most of Stravinsky’s music. I can also imagine how the original production, which was not well-received critically, looked to post-war Europe and America, with all the frills and wigs and pastoral/tavern settings. I thought it worked so much better set amongst aspects of American-Hollywood mythology.

BTW, Balanchine was the stage director for the American premiere of this opera at the Met. (The world premiere was in Venice.) And this opera is Stravinsky’s break with neoclassicism – he was so upset by the critical reaction to it that for the first time, he began studying Schoenberg, etc. So without the “failure” of “The Rake’s Progress,” we wouldn’t have “Agon,” “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” and other late Stravinsky works.

Hi Patrick.

 
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