The Rake’s Progress, or how beautiful Anne saved Tom

“If love be love, it will not alter. It can plunder Hell of its prey” – these words of Anne Trulove summarize the moral of Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress, which was performed yesterday at the 21st Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival under the baton of Alexander Liebreich.

The Rake’s Progress is a masterpiece, but for reasons that are not completely clear, it has not found a place in the national repertoire: it was only staged twice in Poland, once in the 1950s, and again several years ago at the Warsaw Chamber Opera and Baltic Opera in Gdańsk, directed by Marek Weiss. All the more recognition is therefore due to the Ludwig van Beethoven Association for deciding to present this fascinating work at the Easter Festival. The theme of this year’s edition – Beethoven and the Fine Arts – served as a pretext (if a pretext here was needed at all), for The Rake’s Progress is a perfect example of music inspired by paintings and of the correspondence between these two arts.

Tom Rakewell (tenor) holds a prominent place in the operatic gallery of debauchees (Mozart’s Don Giovanni), revellers and mountebanks (Shostakovich’s The Gamblers and Prokofiev’s The Gambler), and habitual heartbreakers, and on the female side – harlots (Berg’s Lulu, Verdi’s La Traviata), femmes fatales and fallen women. Tom Rakewell is a close cousin of Don Giovanni, a fact Stravinsky emphasized with clear Mozartian allusions and inspirations on many musical levels. While Don Giovanni places himself beyond good and evil, Tom Rakewell, a good but flighty and rotten young man, calls the name of his beloved when the Devil wants to drag his soul into hell, and is saved from eternal damnation by the deep love of Anne Trulove. This is a beautiful moral, and although Tom ultimately fails, good and love win. Rakewell is also a Faustian figure – apart from devising a machine to benefit all mankind, he has his own Mefistofele in the person of Nick Shadow (baritone), who tempts him to debauchery, offers him distractions, and later tries to claim Tom’s soul as payment. What an interesting role!

From whence came a morality play in the second half of the 20th century, following the tragic experience of the Second World War, when humankind lost faith in itself? Stravinsky simply followed his own path, far from the new avant-garde, keeping an eye on classical models. But the question of how to live one’s life well and not waste it on trifles, is still relevant today.

In 1948 in Chicago, Igor Stravinsky viewed a series of paintings by William Hogarth, an 18th-century English moral painter. The series presented successive stages from the debauched life of a young man who inherits a fortune, falls into bad company, visits bawdy houses, loses at cards, has his possessions sold at auction, and ends in a madhouse. Stravinsky thought it would be perfect material for an opera libretto, and hired English poet Wystan H. Auden. The libretto is excellent, follows the principles of English prosody, and Auden perfectly set the lines to music, which was met with contentment by Stravinsky himself. In a natural way, the 18th-century source – Hogarth’s series – imposed a classicist context on the composer. As mentioned, the work is imbued with the spirit of Mozart, but also Gluck, the plot is summarized in graceful secco and acompagniato recitatives, which flow into arias and duets, while the fanfare prelude is a clear allusion to the first great opera in history – L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi. At the same time, this work goes against the grain with its constant rhythmic irregularities and syncopated pulsation, which requires the performers to be agogically alert.

So I was impressed by the excellent preparation of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice under Alexander Liebreich’s precise baton. “Camerata Silesia” The Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble, led by Anna Szostak, acquitted themselves very well, although I was left feeling unsatisfied with the direction. The festival performance was not staged, which made me want even more for different voices of the choir, often divisi, to be more individual and performed with greater acting expression, especially in the auction scene, which is a dramatic gem.

The cast of soloists was international with virtually no weaknesses. The rake’s role was portrayed by the Australian Adrian Strooper, a light tenor with a soft voice, though little volume, who specializes in Mozart – performing as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, sings Baroque (Monteverdi, Händel), and at the Komische Oper in Berlin performs in a modern opera by Heinz Karl Gruber Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald directed by Michał Zadara. He must have started singing Tom Rakewell’s part only recently, because his voice sometimes lacked confidence, although vocally speaking, the part suits him perfectly.

British soprano Louise Alder, currently a member of the Frankfurt Opera Ensemble, was charming as Anne Trulove. She identified with this pure girl, faithful in her love: what I will remember most about her performance is her coloratura aria and cabaletta from Act One as well as her love duet with mad Tom – Alder and Strooper sang this duet so beautifully one could believe that in this scene Tom and Anne are finally together, united as lovers (Ironically, Tom stopped running away from love when he went mad). Very convincing as Nick Shadow was the baritone Krzysztof Szumański, who gained experience at Covent Garden and Deutsche Oper Berlin. He created the distinctive character of a seemingly jovial, but in fact dangerous tempter. Even minor roles were solid: bass Eric Downs as Father Trulove, tenor Adam Zdunikowski as auctioneer Sellem, bass Łukasz Smołka from Camerata Silesia as Keeper of the Madhouse. The buffa element, necessary in a dramma giocoso such as The Rake’s Progress, was introduced by the reliable Anna Lubańska (mezzo-soprano) in the tragicomic role of Baba the Turk, the perverted wife of Tom Rakewell (in Act One Lubańska also sang the secondary role of Mother Goose, the madam of a London brothel). In Act Two, in the trio of Anne, Tom and Baba the Turk, ironic contrast sounded well between the seria part sung by Anne Trulove, and the comic jealousy of Baba-Turek (“Oh! Who is it? A family friend? An ancient flame?”). This reminded me of Anna Lubańska as Mother Ubu in Krzysztof Penderecki’s Ubu Rex at the Polish National Opera…

Anna S. Dębowska

Tuesday, 4 April, 7:30 pm, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall