|James Morris as devil Nick Shadow and Catherine Cook as Mother Goose, proprietor of a brothel. Photo by Terrence McArthy.
Thomas Rakewell leaves his Anne Trulove for the distractions of the big city in the libretto written by W. H. Auden for Igor Stravinskyâ€™s score of The Rakeâ€™s Progress, now at SF Opera. Auden set the scenes in England, but Cirque du Soleil director Robert Lepage stages this new production on a broad, mostly bare raked set. The conceit is that this is somewhere in the American west. The cast dresses in denim and flannel, and the big city Tom heads for is Hollywood, even though the script keeps the original wording of London.
One character, Nick Shadow (sung with menacing majesty by James Morris) dresses in shiny black and enters through a trap door in the stage. The dominant set piece is a giant oil pump, bobbing up and down. Shadow is Tomâ€™s oily tempter, who gives him one year and a day of fame and fortune. When Tom reaches Hollywood, the oil pump cleverly turns into a camera boom.
Anne has not heard from Tom in months, and goes to Hollywood to find him, only to discover that, at Shadowâ€™s urging, Tom has married the bearded termagant female performer Baba the Turk. Tom wastes all his money on luxuries, whoring at Mother Gooseâ€™s house and gambling. Under Shadowâ€™s devilish plot, he becomes imprisoned and then winds up in the Bedlam madhouse, where he thinks he is Adonis.
The staging on the bleak set highlights the interpersonal dynamics of the characters well. The three act opera is performed in two acts of about an hour each. William Burdenâ€™s tenor voice as Tom blended perfectly with Conductor Donald Runnicleâ€™s orchestra, and his vocal projection was wonderful. His vibrato added emotional depth to his character. Maestro Runnicles kept the score moving along rapidly with a good sense of timing of the audience reactions. Occasionally there was an uneven balance between the vocals and the orchestration.
Laura Aikin as Anne Trulove is a soprano with pure, plaintive tones and exceptional dominance.
Bass-baritone James Morris always inflects his characters with aspects of evil, and his voice was in fine form as Nick Shadow. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Baba the Turk delivered some swooping highs. The resonances of her voice and her ability to soar instantly from mid-range to high were a treat to listen to, but Babaâ€™s characterization was not detailed enough to hold interest. The opera chorus sang from the upstage lip of the stage. For the Bedlam scene, a large trap opened and they wandered aimlessly around a pit dressed in white while orderlies fit Tom with a strait jacket.
The production tells the story well, and with a novel twist. Some of the set pieces were reminiscent of Cirque, such as a three-quarter scale car with lit headlamps that drove on stage. Another trap opened to reveal a swimming pool, wherefrom Baba nattered at Tom until he was able to shut her up. The simulated diving in was very gymnastic. In all, this updating to Hollywood of a few decades ago of a story set in London a century or more ago succeeds in telling the story without departure and kept the poetry of Audenâ€™s libretto. Stravinskyâ€™s music is well served by the singers and the orchestra.
The Rakeâ€™s Progress continues in repertory through Dec. 9 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets ($20 to $275; $10 SRO day of performance) are available by phone at (415) 864-3330 or online at www.sfopera.com.