Igor Stravinsky's only full-length opera, "The Rake's Progress," is 30 years old. Last night it received its just due as a masterwork of its time in a new production by the Washington Opera. The spirit of William Hogarth's drawings, which inspired the work, together with Stravinsky's fascinating music and the remarkable libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, were all honored in the performance.
In the intimate reaches of the Terrace Theater, every gesture and most of the words, including those that are somewhat arcane, came across in easy clarity. Stravinsky the classicist reigns openly in music that is laid out along baroque lines with arias, set pieces and exquisite choral ensembles. There are brass fanfares, recitatives with harpsichord and an epilogue that points the moral of the story of the steady downfall of the rake who staked all on fortune's favor -- with the Devil telling the fortune. The stage mirrored the dramatic situations with soft-tinted landscapes and Georgian interiors. There were even simulated footlights to recall the theaters of that age.
John Mauceri conducted the intricate score with a master's touch. Pacing is crucial at every point, as is the timing of the pauses that dot the work. Since the music is based on classic models of arias that begin slowly and then proceed to their cabalettas, the requirements for contrast in tempos as well as dynamics are paramount. Mauceri had it all beautifully in hand, giving his gifted cast elegant support. For the most part the orchestra played well, though there were moments of questionable intonation and less than polished tone. Steven Crout's harpsichord playing was flawless.
The staging of the "Rake" is as important as its musical direction. Brian Macdonald met several of the greatest challenges with brilliant effect, especially in the Brothel Scene and the closing Bedlam Scene, in which members of the chorus, while singing beautifully, took on the look of genuine catatonic trances. The Auction Scene, however, went off in several directions when a particular focus was needed. Both the auctioneer and at times Baba the Turk were done more for instant laughs than for artistic ends.
The chorus, trained by William Huckaby, was among the finest musical and dramatic elements of the evening.
Jerry Hadley's Rake is the most penetrating study he has yet offered Washington audiences. He looks, acts and sings the difficult part as if he were living every moment of it. The role is long and involved, and he met every demand with fine art, rising to special heights in the closing duet with Sheri Greenawald, in which the two become, for the moment, Venus and Adonis.
Greenawald was lovely as Anne Trulove. A radiant picture, she sang beautifully, with just the right sound. She has a fine enough high C that she should make the close of the first act a much more thrilling moment than it proved.
Nick Shadow, Rakewell's Devil, is a brilliant satanic role, cast entirely in the sardonic mold. William Dansby's was an ideal portrayal without effacing memories of others who have done it differently. He has the appearance and the ability to produce a slightly grating sound that gives the part a fine menace.
Charlotte Dixon's Mother Goose was superbly pointed as she ruled over her brothel with a velvet and satin hand. Janice Meyerson looked well as Baba, but she did not have the trying music fully under control. Both she and Anthony Laciura, the auctioneer, need more artistic advice on a scene that can but should not lapse into slapstick.
Marvin Finnley's Madhouse Keeper was full of the needed sympathy. This "Rake" is another notable achievement for the Washington Opera, a performance not to be missed.