The Washington Opera's "Rake" has made progress since its opening night two weeks ago. Not that the revival of "The Rake's Progress" was in bad shape even then, with tenor David Eisler singing as a last-minute substitute for Jerry Hadley in the title role. But there was, inevitably, a feeling of precariousness, a slightly edgy air of improvisation in that awkward situation.
Now, Eisler has gone off to the pressing business in Canada that he interrupted briefly to help the Washington company. It seems that Hadley's throat problems will not clear up in time for this season, and tenor David Gordon has settled into the role of Tom Rakewell for the remaining performances through Feb. 2. The production has settled into the company's standard level of dependable excellence. It reflects fully the opera's dazzling inventiveness. And Gordon fits in with the veteran members of the cast as though he had been there all the time.
He is well-suited to the role, not only because he has a fine, light tenor voice well-adapted to the elegant cadences of bel canto, but because he has significant credentials in 18th-century music -- a role in the Washington Opera's "Abduction From the Seraglio" two seasons ago, for example, and some well-received baroque singing with the Hesperus Ensemble. This is important for "The Rake's Progress" because, although the composer is Igor Stravinsky, the style is heavily based on 18th-century music.
The tenor does not quite carry the show; there are four principal roles and several substantial secondary parts. Everyone has to work hard at one time or another -- particularly the chorus, which it would be well nigh impossible to praise too highly in this production.
But it is Tom's story; he is the one who holds it together and the one whose character and situation undergo drastic changes in the course of the opera. His music runs through a remarkable variety of styles and moods, from rash self-confidence to total, insane despair, from floridly ornamented lines to stark simplicity. Without an adequate Tom, the opera loses its point.
The Washington Opera has an excellent Tom. Gordon performs with polish as a solo singer and in the ensemble singing and acting that are a substantial part of his assignment. For the rest of its run, this production should have clear sailing.