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The Rake's Pogress At The Met
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 9:09 pm - The Rake's Pogress At The Met
The last week of the Met seasons featured two performances of The Rakeís Progress, a so-called moral fable by Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden. Audenís lover and roommate in their St. Marks place home, Chester Kallman, is on the page as a co-librettist; that apparently was a legal bit of benefice Auden did for his mate to give Kallman a bit of an income.
Since this opera has had only a few productions, even less recording and radio play, unlike the protagonist Tom Rakewell who mysteriously inherits wealth from an unknown uncle, this singular effort by two geniuses didnít make anybody rich. In fact The Rakeís Progress was the end of each manís operatic career.
The audience of course loved the masterful singing and acting of Samuel Ramey and Paul Groves; they were fitfully amused by the whimsical tale in spite of its gratuitous posture and paradox, most found the last scenes of the opera musically entertaining if not quite moving.
James Levine was out sick the night I was there; Scott Bergeson replaced him with competence. He couldnít have had much rehearsal time. Jonathan Millerís low key production was for once pleasantly not extrusive.
Itís not hard to reckon why The Rakeís Progress has not rivaled Aida for popularity. It has no large effects, no subtlety either, no melodies, no dramatic action, no interesting characters, crumples at times under a libretto Robert Craft politely describes as ďwordyĒ that egoistically vies with the music for interest, stifles the musical impulse with its gaudily dense and formal imitation of Drydenís abstract style.
Auden didnít seem to notice or care that Dryden really stayed out of the way and kept things simple when he collaborated with Purcell in King Arthur; his elegant verse with its imitation of French posture was set later by Handel in the Alexanderfest because it was simple. Craft also civilly says that Auden didnít motivate the action at all; Stravinsky himself had protested about Audenís cavalier way with characters at least at one point.
Audenís didactic and involute verse aims only to be at once the operaís central virtue, to be profound when it is often suavely empty. Verdi would have kicked this man into the street. Poor Stravinsky, much more civil, had three chances in the whole opera to write persuasive emotional music; in these brief scenes he did what he could do.
Otherwise Auden had effectively shut Stravinsky down, reducing him to creating incidental music surely as he had previously done to Benjamin Britten in the similar and equally impossible libretto to Paul Bunyan. At least nobody ever asked Auden to write one of his detached anti-dramatic and show-off libretti again.
Stravinsky, setting The Rakeís Progress in the transparent neo-classic style of Apollo he had already abandoned with the atonal and serial Agon in 1947, also never wrote an opera afterwards. From then on every text he set in concert works was simple and unassuming, contrasting with modest propriety to his brilliant adaption of Schoenbergís dodocacophony. Itís too bad. The music in the last half of The Rakeís Progress often shows his gift for the form; all of it shows his dramatic intelligence.
If one is looking for the virtues of Andrea Chenier, a musically inferior spectacle with all the virtues of opera, one isnít going to like this arch and emotionally remote work. Yet The Rakeís Progress, flawed, is still enjoyable for what it is. It certainly with its message of the lethal and metaphysical danger of trusting to fortune and carnal folly rather than personal life and love, a fable for our time as Brittenís dead on arrival The Rape Of Lucretia done this season next door at the State Opera never is.
Brittenís dismal entertainment, with another dense preachy libretto festooned with heavy beautiful poetry from Ronald Duncan, aims at rescuing it audience from fascist evil by returning its public to stale and illusionistic medieval remedies. While drawing one in somewhat meretriciously, taking as little from Hogarth as Britten lamentably ignored Shakespeare, The Rakeís Progress has a cosmopolitan and apocrine jaunty air of comedy though never really funny or frothy and pathetic in the buffa manner since its lack of character portrayals chill the heart, is in its arid satire an amusement more suitable for dire sermons in song.
If one doesnít care about the characters in any of Audenís dramatic verse, Auden though a poetic genius often plainly a pedagogue without much to teach, his bosky skeptical irony is suitable for our own age, needing some handle of reason to protect itself against folly, looking for Roman tactical solutions for hedges against evil.
Stravinsky wasnít far behind the Red then Episcopal Auden in lack of personal solutions to moral infamy. He was a workaholic who ignored or used his family as a base to do the only thing he cared about: making music. Itís one of the wonders of art that ones of its roots of inspiration is the creator preaching against himself. Itís our consolation as an audience as well as our luck that we only have access to the inner thoughts of some Artists when they are alone in a room.
The Rakeís Progress poses the right questions and offers answers to moral conduct that inspires an audience to take up reflections much more successfully than Brittenís no less static and meditative sermon does.
One would have to be a dunce to miss that with the total capitulation of theatre to shallow commerce the two opera houses in New York in different ways have taken the role of prophet and Ibsenite sermonizer in our city. The more we have rule by kings and priests, the less republican our lives are, the less improbable that take is for artistic directors of opera houses. Mozart and Verdi, even Moussorsky and Berg are our great social critics. It has left some of the very composers who thought themselves messiahs behind.
Wagnerís ambivalence about carnality seems merely a singing case book for giving him Prozack or locking him up; our nakedly epicurean age can only take in such an erotic crank as a bon-bon.
Opera still survives on patronage, not commerce. Both the Met and State Opera have commissioned operas that try to occupy some center in American mystical life. Sadly, without exception they are all awful as an amble through a Calcutta charnel house; people bear them as they do headaches and alimony payments. They ask the wrong composers in our bathetic age of synthetic careers; the pundits with power donít know who has talent, who is merely a successful courtier.
The prophetic stance of these two houses has been optimally effective in older operas with musical persuasion with themes that still speak to us.
The Rakeís Progress is such an opera. It is about a protagonist who tells family and lovers to drop dead, takes up endless amusement, is corrupted by riches, then by overwhelming debt in a market crash, is empty and jaded at heart, has a childless epicurean marriage, then goes insane thinking of himself as Adonis.
He offers none of the resistance one finds in 19th century opera or novels to the devil or even a dull and mildly compassionate banker as a warbling personification of such expensive folly; our contemporary rake hasnít really got an alternative moral system as a hedge against the unravelling of character from skeins of endless amusement.
This rather ordinary experience translates easily into the banalities of social life in America in the last few decades even if one has only gone on disability and watched television; it is undoubtedly why James Levine picked this Ibsenite opera to do now. As long as so many New Yorkers are jades themselves our opera hoses can command enough of an army of an audience of weary local white-haired rakes to make such amusement prophetic for us.
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