In the second plate of Hogarth's vivaciously moralizing series of prints "The Rake's Progress," we see the interior of young, nouveau-riche Tom Rakewell's home in London. Among those vying for his attention (and his money) are a dancing master and a fencing master, a jockey (carrying a cup won at Epsom by a horse called "Silly Tom"), a hired assassin, a hunting master, a music master, milliner, tailor, wigmaker and poet with a poem dedicated to "T. Rakewell, Esq." On the wall hang three paintings -- a poorly done copy of a Renaissance "The Judgment of Paris," flanked by two pictures of Tom's gamecocks in fighting postures.
The scene is beautifully wrought, not only from a graphic but from a narrative and psychological point of view; the bustle of hangers-on tells more about Tom than could be conveyed in the proverbial 10,000 words. The paintings on his walls reflect thematically the interests of the aspiring young womanizer and man about town, and the fact that they are not very good reflects the fact that he is over his head in things about which he is really ignorant.
The same paintings appear on the walls in Act II, Scene 1 of The Washington Opera's production of Stravinsky's (and W.H. Auden's and Chester Kallman's) "The Rake's Progress," which is now playing at the Terrace Theater, and they serve the same subliminal purposes as in Hogarth's print. They serve also to emphasize this production's visual fidelity to a work of art that originated in a visual experience. The cast of characters in this scene is not as large, vivid and varied as in Hogarth; opera almost always simplifies its source material (while intensifying it, if it works), but the first thing to be said about this "Rake's Progress" is that it does justice not only to Stravinsky and his librettists but to the 18th-century genius who was the origin of it all.
Much of the fine visual impact, which is the joint work of designer Zack Brown and director Brian Macdonald, is achieved through the use of a very versatile chorus, as effective dramatically as it is musically, which appears first as the denizens of a London brothel, later as a "Crowd of Respectable Citizens" for the auction after poor Tom's bankruptcy, and finally as the inmates of Bedlam in a last scene that looks like something out of "Marat/Sade" while staying faithful to Hogarth's original view. Even before it becomes a feast for the ears, this "Rake's Progress" is a delight to the eye, beginning with the Ionic proscenium arch built into its scenery, the old-fashioned covers on the footlights, and the scrim curtain (which would make a marvelous poster) on view during the overture.
It is no less a feast musically and dramatically. Stravinsky's polymorphous genius chose in this work to pay the most elaborate and probably the finest of his various tributes to 18th-century styles. The music is always clearly modern (though never too modern), but it also hints, constantly and in delightful detail, at the balance, the restraint, the gracefully elaborate structures of 18th-century opera. Clarity is one of its prime virtues -- a spareness of texture that lets you admire the delicate bone structure beneath the fine skin -- and it is flexible, capable of wit and intense passion as well as evocations of period flavor.
It is beautifully performed in this production, with conductor John Mauceri's baton very precisely geared to the music's pulse and his fine sense of balance keeping voices and orchestra in excellent perspective. The voices are well worth such loving care, particularly that of tenor Jerry Hadley, whose excellent performances in The Washington Opera's productions of "La Boheme" and "The Barber of Seville" gave only the most fragmentary hints of what he could do in this role. Part of the credit may belong to the Terrace, whose intimate acoustics seem ideal for his voice (as, also, for the slightly sec texture of Stravinsky's music). William Dansby is equally effective as the diabolical Nick Shadow, in a performance compounded of small nuances that work splendidly in the Terrace. With a tenor less gifted than Hadley, he might easily have stolen the show, but in this production the proper balance was maintained. Soprano Sheri Greenawald projected a less focused image, vocally and dramatically, on opening night, though her performance grew steadily in stature throughout the evening and was most impressive by the end. Secondary roles are generally well-cast (notably Charlotte Dixon as the brothel-keeper), and it would be hard to overpraise the chorus.
Even 30 years after its premiere, Stravinsky's music for this opera still does not fit everyone's taste. But having given this caveat, I must add my personal opinion that this "Rake's Progress" is The Washington Opera's best offering so far in what is shaping up as a very distinguished season.
THE RAKE'S PROGRESS -- At the Terrace Theater, alternating with "L'Elisir d'Amore" though December 15.