Review: A "rake" takes a precious place in the opera season

Just before the end of this landmark return season at the Metropolitan Opera, the slot machine is back. This slot? Connoisseurs know i...


Just before the end of this landmark return season at the Metropolitan Opera, the slot machine is back.

This slot? Connoisseurs know it as the run just before the company’s summer vacation, when the Met schedules a short revival – three, maybe four performances – of a slightly off-the-beaten-path title. In the past it was Janacek’s works (in May 2020, it was to be “Kat’a Kabanova”), Billy Budd by Britten “Dialogues of the Carmelites” by Poulenc. It’s catnip for opera lovers, a bit of dessert after a month-long feast.

In the spring of 2015, the slot was taken by Stravinsky’s “The Progress of the Rake”. And in the spring of 2022, it is still the case. A restrained version of this sophisticated work, it opened on Monday and runs for three more performances, until June 11.

The libretto, by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, is based on a suite of paintings by Hogarth about a young man who squanders his inheritance and goes mad. The opera adds a Mephistophelian figure who tempts Tom Rakewell on the right path with riches and women – for a price.

Stravinsky’s score evokes the 1700s of Hogarth, Pergolesi and Mozart, infusing the airy, fresh lucidity of that era with the angular rhythms and tangy harmonies of the mid-20th century. The music at first glance can sound awfully nostalgic – until you open your ears to its choppy instability and darker ambiguities.

Conductor Susanna Mälkki led the orchestra most memorably in passages of strangeness and tenderness, such as the night glow from the prelude to the graveyard scene in the final act. Moments of grandeur and flashy passages of lively irregularities, however, still seemed to set in Monday.

Tenor Ben Bliss, like Rakewell, was less wide-eyed than some singers from the start, his tone bright and endearing. As in “The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart earlier this season, soprano Golda Schultz’s voice was silky smooth as Anne Trulove, Tom’s girlfriend, and she managed to project innocence without ingenuity. And making her company debut as Baba the Turk, the bearded diva Tom marries, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis had a vibrant presence and grounded sound, elegant in her grace towards Anne.

Add another devil to his Met repertoire after playing the title role in “Mefistofele” by Boito in 2018, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sang Nick Shadow with a solid and direct resonance, but without a very seductive innuendo. There were elegant turns in smaller roles of James Creswell (Anne’s father), Eve Gigliotti (the Mrs. Mother Goose), Tony Stevenson (the auctioneer Sellem) and Paul Corona (the asylum keeper ).

With its blue-sky apartments and sharply angled cityscape, Jonathan Miller’s production, first seen here in 1997, lives up to the 1990s: simple, stylized, a bit quirky, with plays of surreal scale. (See also Miller’s 1991 “Kat’a Kabanova” staging, with its dollhouses, and Elijah Moshinsky’s tall nymphs from 1993’s “Ariadne auf Naxos”.)

At 25, the show looks a bit scuffed. But the action is clear – and, as always, the lullaby Anne sings to Tom in the madhouse towards the end is heartbreaking, a blessing to a troubled man and a troubled world.

The progress of the rake

Until June 11 at the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan; metopera.org.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: A "rake" takes a precious place in the opera season
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