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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rake’s Progress (1951)
Anne Trulove - Jayne West (soprano); Tom Rakewell - Jon Garrison (tenor); Father Trulove - Arthur Woodley (baritone); Nick Shadow - John Cheek (bass-baritone); Mother Goose - Shirley Love (mezzo-soprano); Baba the Turk - Wendy White (mezzo-soprano); Sellem - Melvin Lowery (tenor); Keeper - Jeffrey Johnson (bass)
Gregg Smith Singers; Orchestra of St. Luke’s/Robert Craft
rec. Performing Arts Center, SUNY, Purchase, NY, May 1993
NAXOS 8.660272-3 [74:31 + 53:32]
Experience Classicsonline


The Rake’s Progress contains a fair number of dramatic flaws - at least on paper. Consider the amount of time given to leave-taking in the very first scene, when Tom has learned he is a rich man and must go off with Shadow to attend to his affairs. The end of Act 2 really shouldn’t work, the final bars preceded as they are by a lengthy piece of recitative in which Shadow convinces Nick that his machine for making stones into bread is a viable commercial concern. Then in Act 3, it is surely dramatic suicide to resort once again to extended recitative, with harpsichord accompaniment no less - for what is surely the key scene of the opera, when Tom wins his soul at cards, but loses his mind. One could easily draw attention to other things, yet the wonder is that, well cast and, above all, well staged, the opera works brilliantly in the theatre. When an opera is heard simply through loudspeakers, with no visual element, the totality of what you might call the theatrical experience must be conveyed by what the singers sing and what the instrumentalists play. That experience is largely absent in this performance.

The work is uneven, too, from a purely musical point of view. The inspiration runs at less than boiling point for much of Act 2, and I think there is little doubt that Stravinsky had more sympathy with his female characters than with his male ones. Thus, the part of Anne Trulove is a gift for any soprano with the voice to carry it off. She is, to be sure, the little, downtrodden woman left at home, but her scena at the end of Act 1 shows how strong and determined a person she is, and her support of Tom in the closing scene of the opera demonstrates her steadfast and loving nature. Jayne West’s assumption of this challenging role is a major achievement. She is totally in command vocally and through her voice alone manages remarkably well to suggest the different facets of the character. I can’t think of another Anne Trulove, live or recorded, who has so successfully inhabited the part. The other great success in terms of casting is Baba the Turk. She is wonderfully haughty as she demands, from her coach, that Tom finishes “whatever business” he has with Anne, later sealing her own marital fate by jabbering hilariously until her husband can stand no more. She is then very touching when she advises Anne to go in search of Tom, thereby relinquishing her husband to another, before sweeping out regally, imperiously, from the auction where her possessions are being sold, with the words “The next time you see Baba, you shall pay!” Wendy White achieves all this by singing Stravinsky’s notes as accurately as possible and by putting her lovely voice to work without a trace of exaggeration or caricature. The role of Mother Goose is an ungrateful one, and Shirley Love assumes it here with the now customary harsh tone and wide vibrato. There seems less to say about the men in this performance. Jon Garrison, as Tom, sings well enough and his voice is clear and pleasant, but there seems little attempt to bring out the different facets of a character which is, in fact, quite a complex and varied one. By acting with his voice he might have helped us understand why he married Baba whilst still in love with Anne, or even why Anne should love such an apparently feckless creature at all. No, it’s all too monochrome and unvaried, a criticism which can also be made of John Cheek as Nick Shadow. Let’s not forget that in this modern reworking of the Faust story, Nick is the Devil. This particular devil never resorts to persuasive charm, nor do we ever see anything resembling a diabolical smile on his lips. Instead, he sings a more or less constant forte, creating a forceful character but one without much in the way of malice. Toward the end of Act 2 he speaks directly to the audience, letting us into the secret that he thinks of his master as a fool. Tom is on stage at the time, but there is not the faintest suggestion of an aside, speaking behind the hand. Arthur Woodley, as Anne’s father, also sings too loudly too much of the time. He should be warmer, gentler than this. When, near the end, he comes to bring her out of Bedlam where she must abandon the man she loves, he might be calling her to the table for dinner. Sellem, the auctioneer, is another lovely, if small, part, and well taken here by Melvin Lowery, though Kevin Miller is funnier in Stravinsky’s reading from 1964. I’m happy to acknowledge Jeffrey Johnson, suitably lugubrious in the tiny role of the Keeper of Bedlam.

Robert Craft’s role as Stravinsky’s musical assistant has been well documented, as has the part he played in the gestation of this particular work. His performances in this ongoing series of Naxos reissues of his Stravinsky series are characterised by technical perfection and absolute clarity, Stravinskian virtues to be sure. He eschews, however, anything that might be thought of as interpretation. This approach can work well in some works, but the result here is a certain rigidity which undermines any ability the singers might have to invest into their singing the nature of the character they are playing. This applies to the chorus too, who are musically superb, if a bit underpowered, but who sound the same - and very proper with it - be they whores, gossipy would-be auction customers, or even lunatics. The funeral dirge of Tom/Adonis is a case in point. It is well sung, dark in tone, but too brisk and too inflexible in pulse to communicate what is actually present in the music. The composer himself is better in this scene, and when, under his direction, Baba reveals her beard in answer to the crowd’s entreaties, the effect is grotesque, orgiastic, almost disgusting. Not here, I’m afraid.

The orchestra plays brilliantly well and the recording is clear and immediate. We get the smashed pots, the cuckoo clock and so on, but otherwise there seems to be little attempt at production. The singers appear to stand in a line and sing, and this, combined with Craft’s clinical approach and the rather faceless manner of some of the principals, makes for a decidedly untheatrical experience. There have been many recordings of The Rake’s Progress, and though I haven’t heard or seen them all, one or two I have come across have been real horrors. Chailly’s performance on Decca is more involving than this one, but the casting is uneven and you need to proceed with caution. Stravinsky apparently left London in 1964 with unpleasant memories of his experience of recording the opera with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Well, maybe the sessions were difficult, I wouldn’t know, but the result is, in my view, still the most successful version of this flawed but fascinating masterpiece.

William Hedley

see also review by Dominy Clements

 
 


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