STRAVINSKY'S "The Rake's Progress" was the composer's effort to write a truly great opera. It is a work that requires close attention and rewards it.
The opera, which the Washington Opera revived Tuesday night, is not the perfection its composer sought when he tried to write an 18th-century work in 1951. It starts slowly, but the eloquence of the collaboration between the man widely regarded as the musical giant of the century and writers W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman eventually begins to stir.
The first marvelous moment comes in a trio by the so-called hero Tom Rakewell (an 18th- century Everyman); his true love, aptly named Anne Truelove; and the bizarre Baba the Turk. Then the music moves into Bedlam -- literally -- where the demented Tom, imagining himself as Adonis and Anne as Venus herself, sings a ballad of melting loveliness.
Things proceed and the opera ends with a Mozartian epilogue on the meaning of it all. It is here that Stravinsky asserts the distinction between the terrible fate of his 18th-century musical model, the heroic Don Giovanni, and the more mundane Tom. As Anne declares in the epilogue: "Not every rake is rescued at the last by Love and Beauty; Not every man is given an Anne to take the place of duty."
There are moments of tedium early on in the music, but once the momentum is going Stravinsky is on target. And the Washington Opera is doing "The Rake's Progress" about as well as one could ask.
The big new acquisition is conductor Nicholas McGegan, an English baroque authority who brought such style to last season's production of Handel's "Semele," and now shows similar panache in Stravinsky's neoclassic adventure with the aria, duets, trio, recitative and other ensemble traditions of the 18th century. McGegan's conducting is outstanding for its clarity and rhythmic command.
The title role is an especially difficult one -- lengthy, arduous and with few opportunities for gratifying display. Tenor David Eisler undertook it the other night under the most trying conditions. It was new to him until he was called in over the weekend to sub for Jerry Hadley (who has a throat disorder). Tenor David Gordon has since been called in for some of the succeeding performances, and it is unclear when Hadley, who did the part so well in the past, may be able to return).
Two other remarkable stalwarts from the past have returned: Sheri Greenawald as Anne and bass Jeffrey Wells as Nick Shadow, the Mephisto figure in this theatrical combination derived from Hogarth's splendid series of morality prints known collectively as "The Rake's Progress."
Jonathan Green is especially fine as Sellum, the auctioneer of Tom's estate -- as are Beverly Evans as Baba the Turk and Charlotte Dixon as the brothel-keeper Mother Goose.
Zack Brown's sets are worthy of Hogarth's drawings without being slavish to them, and Brian MacDonald directs with skill. Especially worthy of note is Frank Conlon, the harpsichord player, an inspired oddity indeed for an opera written in the second half of this century.
"The Rake" concludes a memorable season for the Washington Opera. Only its Barenboim/Ponnelle "Figaro" was more challenging or more rewarding -- and that's saying a lot. THE RAKE'S PROGRESS -- At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater this Friday, Tuesday, January 19, 23, 25 and 29 and February 2 at 8; Sunday at 1; Thursday at 7; and January 27 at 2.