The IU Opera Theatre’s solid production of one of the most popular twentieth century operas is playing to a small house and one that gets smaller between the first and second acts. Conductor Imre Pallo is conducting a well drilled and eloquent orchestra and two fine sets of young singers. Stage director Vincent Liotta, especially in that sparsely attended second act, makes imaginative use of the principals and chorus even getting a few nicely prepared laughs from the audience.
Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress is nearly fifty years old, but it still challenges theater goers. The reasons are several and they are all things that Stravinsky does on purpose. Let me first step back and begin with the least challenging part of the opera, the story. Tom Rakewell, Johan Weigel, is an idler just waiting for fortune to strike. He’s a sucker for an offer of easy money by the devilish, Nick Shadow, Christopher Burchett. Tom does fall for the lure and he nearly loses his life. However, his love for Anne Trulove, Diane Thueson-Reich, at least partially protects him. The story is not a problem. Even the moral, that "the devil finds work for idle fingers," is easily accommodated.
Let’s go from the story to how it is presented. Stravinsky chose to do his eighteenth century story in an eighteenth century way. He turned his back on the advances in linking drama and music that had been made by Wagner, Berg and Debussy. Stravinsky gives us formal recitatives, arias and ensembles. On paper ‘The Rake’s Progress" looks like a Mozart opera or perhaps even a piece by Handel. This certainly should present no problems for IU audiences.
However, and it is a big ‘however.’ As soon as we start to listen to the music the difficulties begin. Stravinsky takes a gentle lyric sung in standard operatic fashion. The orchestra, very much sounding Mozartian, starts to play a set of chords but they are part of Stravinsky’s own 20 th century palette. Sometimes the orchestra sounds almost pedestrian, but the lyric is from the cutting edge of our own century. At other times jagged rhythms work against otherwise easily accepted melodies and words. There is always something working against the other elements.
One day in my first music theory class, after we had been wrestling with the subject for most of a semester, the teacher put on a Tchaikovsky ballet record. Despite our recent training, the class visibly relaxed back into earlier modes of listening. Sensing this, the frustrated teacher looked around and in a loud voice said "Don’t take a bath in it!" In "The Rake’s Progress," Stravinsky echoes my teacher’s advice at every turn.
In Saturday night’s cast Christopher Burchett was especially commanding as the evil Nick Shadow. Janice Hauxwell was charming as the fully bearded Baba the Turk. Johan Weigel was believable as the idle young Tom. Diane Thueson-Reich was even stronger in her maternal than her romantic love for Tom. Andrew Oakden as Mr. Tulove, Rebeckah Valentine as the brothel keeper Mother Goose, Kristoffer Milhalka as the auctioneer and David Sigmon as the keeper of the madhouse all held up their parts of the progress.