Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rake’s Progress (1951) [128:09]
Dawn Upshaw (soprano) - Anne Trulove
Jerry Hadley (tenor) - Tom Rakewell
Robert Lloyd (baritone) - Father Trulove
Samuel Ramey (bass-baritone) - Nick Shadow
Anne Collins (mezzo) - Mother Goose
Grace Bumbry (mezzo) - Baba the Turk
Steven Cole (tenor) - Sellem
Roderick Earle (bass) - Keeper
Chœur de l’Opéra de Lyon
Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon /Kent Nagano
rec. July 1995, January, March 1996, Opéra de Lyon.
WARNER CLASSICS ERATO 2564 68138-0 [69:40 + 67:45]

This is a re-release of Kent Nagano’s The Rake’s Progress from the mid-1990s. This has been a highly regarded recording in numerous quarters, so it is good to see it given a new lease of life at a more competitive price. As far as packaging goes there are few complaints, though there are no real booklet notes as such. What you do have is a full track-listing and a reasonably detailed synopsis. The lack of a libretto need not be overly lamented, as the clarity of most of the singing makes up for any amount of printed words. I have already had a good listen to Robert Craft’s 1993 recording which is now available on Naxos (see review), and at bargain price this is still a very realistic and attractive proposition. I usually find myself gravitating towards Stravinsky’s own 1964 recording however, to be found as part of Sony’s must-have bargain 22 CD box Works of Igor Stravinsky. Modern recordings always have their benefits, but with the option of returning to the source this is what I more often than not end up doing when evaluating The Rake’s Progress.

Kent Nagano’s recording is very nicely recorded, with the intimacy of the Lyon Opera providing its own character to the production. The acoustic is not vast, but, either with or without a bit of help from the engineers there is a realistic and attractive resonance for both singers and orchestra. Of the latter there is very little to say, other than in terms of superlatives. Very nicely balanced and full of marvellous subtleties, Nagano handles his orchestra like a master painter, weighing phrases and passagework with attention to detail and sonority. This is also helped by a very artistically managed balance in the recording, although Stravinsky’s 1964 version shows how a bit more power and sparkle in the strings can make for greater overall impact. My complaints with other recordings about the level of the harpsichord are partially addressed here, this important instrument providing fairly sturdy support without being overly spot-lit, though again I feel it could be more present later on in the graveyard scene.

The cast is very strong. Dawn Upshaw is pretty much a household name and for good reason, and her Anne is superbly portrayed. She doesn’t have quite the girlish innocence Jayne West has for Craft, but can convey a nice sense of sensitive vulnerability. Samuel Ramey is fruity rather than sinister as Nick Shadow, but has enough range to give dark chills as the story unfolds. Stage centre in terms of acting is Jerry Hadley as Tom Rakewell, and I have to admit to finding some aspects of his performance a little overdone. In many ways this characterisation is good for the role – Tom’s being a rather daft and arrogant personality from the outset. The Cavatina in act one is very nicely done, and the mind’s eye can easily attune to what is after all a very powerful if at times rather larger than life performance: this is what opera is about after all, isn’t it? His character certainly becomes abject enough as he gambles for his life in the graveyard, and the penultimate scenes with Anne are given a good deal of touching sensitivity. Either way I prefer the men in Nagano’s recording to those with Craft on Naxos, whose performances and vocal character are more two-dimensional.

The ensemble work is particularly good, and Tom and Nick’s vocal sparring at the end of act 2 scene 1 is just an introduction to plenty of examples of such rousing interactions. At each turn, the distinctive nature of each character is exploited to the full as their conflicting situations and emotions clash or melt together. An interesting choice for Baba the Turk is Grace Bumbry, whose undisguised Midwestern American is more than usually distinctive. More than crockery alone, there is a distinct smashing of furniture and other sundry items in the one-sided act 2 fight between Baba and Tom, but the fury doesn’t quite come though in the singing. Steve Cole hams up a delightful Sellem in act 3. In summary, this is an ambitiously and effectively acted Rake, and as such creates both griping drama as well as a fine musical experience.

High drama develops in the graveyard, and though we don’t hear the cards riffling there is a nice touch in the chiming of a deep and distant bell at each of Tom’s correct choice of card. The tender emotional centre of the opera is of course act 3 scene 3, and Jerry Hadley and Dawn Upshaw meet and match as equals, the madness of Tom Rakewell – barring outbursts – suitably subdued and understated, the innocence of impossible love and genuine affection is palpable in their performance. Is the pace of the Lullaby just a touch too swift to be really moving? I’ve certainly been more inclined to shed a tear with other recordings, but sometimes it’s just the way it hits you. The Duettino, ‘Every wearied body must late or soon return to dust’ get me every time, whichever version.

Returning to Stravinsky’s own recording by way of a reference: the vibrancy and sheer sense of life in this 1964 performance jumps out at you with surprising immediacy. If anything, this is the only criticism I would have of the Kent Nagano recording – the sense of carefully prepared perfection takes away that layer of pungency you always feel with that classic older recording. This is almost inevitably a comment one could make about any subsequent production and is therefore a bit unfair, but the fact remains, once you have Stravinsky’s own version this will become a virtually unassailable reference. As far as modern recordings go however, the Kent Nagano/Lyon production currently has to be one of the best on the market.

Dominy Clements

One of the best modern recordings available