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Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus

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Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress
14 Sep 2010

The Rake’s Progress at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie

At some point it became a matter of honor for elite composers to have at least one go at a full length opera.

Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress

Anne Truelove: Laura Claycomb; Tom Rakewell: Andrew Kennedy; Nick Shadow: William Shimmell; Baba the Turk: Dagmar Peckova; Sellem: Donal J. Byrne. Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels. Kazushi Ono, conductor. Robert Lepage, stage director. Recorded live at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels on 26 and 28 April 2007.

Opus Arte OA BD7038 D [Blu-Ray]

$36.99  Click to buy

The resulting work usually becomes treasured by critics but somewhat less warmly received by the broader opera-going public. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a gorgeous piece and almost surely a money loser when staged, at least for American companies. Of American companies as well, only the Metropolitan Opera seems able to gird its financial loins and put on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron every few years. More recent works in this vein that tickle the rarefied fancies of professional opera journalists include Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. The scores of these works, unsurprisingly, often demonstrate a sophistication and complexity beyond the reach of the humbler composers whose popular works keep opera house doors open. But an opera is more than a score.

For his sole full-length operatic venture, Igor Stravinsky composed a score to W. H Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto for The Rake’s Progress that marries his brilliant rhythmic hi-jinks with a neo-classical homage, including set numbers for the characters. However, once Stravinsky’s mature compositional self emerged from the shadow of Rimsky-Korsakov, he hardly established himself as a memorable composer of melodies, and much of The Rake’s Progress glides by in a kind of tart musical glaze that seems ready to form an appealing tuneful idea but never does. The libretto earns points for its clever mutation of the original source material, a series of sketches by Hogarth. Despite having a world-class poet as part of the writing team, much of the language is weirdly awkward, and the story becomes just another twist on Faust/Mephistopheles tale. Stylized to the point of aridity, this is very very dry wine for connoisseurs.

The sheer theatrical imagination and sharpness of Robert LePage’s staging of The Rake’s Progress only reinforces these convictions for your reviewer. Filmed here in April 2007 at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, the cameras actually don’t do the optimal job of preserving the effect of Lepage’s best ideas as seen in the house (your reviewer saw this production in San Francisco a few years ago). Close-ups bring the viewer too near the theatrical make-up and flatten the charm of some of the best ideas, such as the inflatable trailer home, a delightful event seen live but less charming on film. The design, by Carl Fillion, appears to be inspired by the CinemaScope expanses of the American west as seen in George Stevens’ Giant. The connection to the material is dubious but it makes for some striking visuals.

An able but uncharismatic cast is one big part of the reason why this DVD is less entertaining than it promises to be. Tom Rakewell is almost as much of a bore when dissolute as he is when innocent at the opera’s start. Andrew Kennedy has a lyric tenor with some substance but little color, and he is one key performer done no favors by a farsighted camera person. Laura Claycomb sings a very pretty Anne Truelove, and there isn’t much more to do with the role than that. Surely Mephistopheles can afford a premium hair stylist, but William Shimmell’s Nick Shadow has the thinning hair and pasty complexion of a middle-aged politician. He’s more unappealing than demonic. As expected, Dagmar Peckova steals her scenes with a perky, limber Baba Turk.

Kazushi Ono conducts the La Monnaie forces with the attention to precision the score demands. Many people do esteem this work highly, and for those, this DVD surely counts as essential. For all others, the best option for this opera in this staging is to catch it live.

Chris Mullins

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