The City Musick

at Mandel Hall

March 19

The Rake’s Progress, Igor Stravinsky’s only full-length opera, is one of those pieces that virtually everybody knows about, but that very few actually know. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that it is the product of the so-called neoclassical Stravinsky, a later style that has never been as popular as the early Stravinsky. In fact, nearly 20 years after his death Stravinsky is still known primarily for three works, all ballets from his early years: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. Some of the neglect of his work is justified, for his enormous output is one of the most uneven in all of music. But much of the neglect is not warranted, particularly in the case of The Rake’s Progress.

Stravinsky’s insistence on preserving W.H. Auden’s literary style makes for a very artistic and readable libretto–singable perhaps, but notoriously difficult to understand when sung. The work has never enjoyed the same popularity in English-speaking countries that it has in Europe, where the libretto is often freely translated and paraphrased to make for greater directness and clarity.

Yet even when it is clearly understood, the opera is often rather cerebral in content, and the 18th-century operatic conventions Stravinsky satirizes are held so near and dear by opera lovers everywhere that his humor is largely lost on them. Many critics have completely missed the point of the work and have labeled it a pastiche imitation of 18th-century opera, which speaks as much to Stravinsky’s subtlety as to their stupidity.

Still, it seems strange that The Rake’s Progress should have to wait nearly 40 years to be heard in the city of its conception–and to be presented not by Lyric Opera or even Chicago Opera Theater, but by Chicago’s 18th-century orchestra the City Musick. The opera was inspired by Stravinsky’s 1947 visit to the Art Institute, where he came across a series of eight William Hogarth engravings called “The Rake’s Progress” (full-sized prints of which the City Musick was generous enough to display in the lobby of Mandel Hall). The modern master decided to set the story in 18th-century style, complete with recitatives, arias, ensemble scenes, and even harpsichord. Yet it all comes out enormously Stravinskian–it’s much like looking at the old conventions in a fun-house mirror.

Although the City Musick did Mozart’s Idomeneo magnificently three seasons ago in their first operatic venture, I was more than a bit skeptical about their ability to pull off the far more modern The Rake’s Progress. Not because the opera is scored for modern instruments, for despite the facility with which many of City Musick’s members now perform on period instruments, most of them are still far more skilled at playing conventional instruments. But because while The Rake’s Progress does look back, it is from a thoroughly modern perspective–not only conceptually but musically. Could this “18th century” group come that far forward and then turn around and look over its shoulder? The answer, much to my and the audience’s delight, was a rousing affirmative.

It was immediately obvious that conductor Elaine Scott Banks had done every bit of the tremendous amount of homework necessary to effectively bring off such an unusual score, a real credit to how far she has come as a major conductor in a short time. Her interpretation was so imaginative, her command so absolute, I suspect there isn’t a major opera house in the world that wouldn’t have been proud to have her in the pit conducting this work. (In fact, Lyric should think very seriously about engaging Banks for their own announced production, for the chances of their being able to find someone to do nearly as stylish a job are quite slim.) Banks’s experience with 18th-century music turned out to be an asset; her approach was never heavy-handed, which ensured that the work had a nice, light bounce to it. At the same time, she displayed an enormous array of contrasts of color and dynamics, and her point of view was decidedly modern. It was really the best of both worlds. The ensemble, augmented to nearly twice its regular size, responded impressively as a single instrument. Most enjoyable was its lilting approach to Stravinsky’s unusual rhythms, which are so often done in a stodgy manner; Stravinsky should always be done with a real sense of swing.

The fully staged production, with its cleverly designed all-purpose gallery set draped in white curtains, was a far cry from the black scaffolding that formed the set for Idomeneo. Director Michael McConnell’s staging was simple but elegant, and lighting and costumes were both used to maximum effect.

The standout vocally was tenor Robert Tate, who made an ideal Tom Rakewell, the opera’s antihero. Not only is Tate a superb actor, but his firm tenor was always clearly projected and understandable. Soprano Alexandra Coku made a sympathetic and loyal Anne Trulove, but she was very difficult to understand and tended to have uneven register shifts. Mezzo-soprano Jocelyn Wilkes effectively stole her scenes as the bearded circus lady Baba the Turk, whom Tom marries to show that pleasure has no ties on him. She was so properly hilarious and imposing in the role that I didn’t mind that she was vocally unfocused or that her pitch was unpredictable, though I was bothered by the fact that her lower range was often hard to hear. Nick Shadow–the devilish servant to Tom’s late, rich uncle who wants to serve the suddenly rich Tom–was well sung and acted by baritone Daryl Henricksen, although not always with ideal projection and diction. Bass Thomas Sandri as Anne’s father often had a muddy timbre and diction; Frank Hoffmeister as the autioneer Sellem was impressive dramatically, though his voice was slightly raspy. Emily Lodine made an effective Mother Goose, Scott Jonas a credible asylum keeper. The City Musick Chorus was not particularly memorable in their scenes, though they would have to go a long way to be as unfocused and scattered as the Lyric Opera Chorus.

This enjoyable production of The Rake’s Progress is undeniably a critical stepping-stone for the City Musick, all the more so because it was such an enormous challenge and stretched the resources of the young group to its limits. The results were most impressive and clearly demonstrated that when City Musick chooses to do opera, it can be second to none in the city. That is a pretty spectacular jump.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gordon Meyer.