In this age of short-attention-span theater, Igor Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress"--its libretto a collaborative effort of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman--has obstacles to overcome. The nine scenes, plus epilogue, are mired in a predictable story line, little of physical or psychological consequence "happens," and Stravinsky's neoclassical parody, while abundantly reminiscent of Mozart's musical idioms, succeeds in producing a stillborn series of lacquered tableaux. Nevertheless, members of the Wolf Trap Opera Company gave a winning performance Wednesday evening in the pleasantly rustic setting of the Barns.
Partially derived from a set of 18th-century English prints by William Hogarth, the plot is a concatenation of themes evoking Don Giovanni in the character of the ne'er-do-well beguiler Tom Rakewell, an amalgam of Dr. Jekyll and Mephistopheles (Nick Shadow, or the Devil) and the moral fables of Aesop. The plot is a no-frills one: The Rake (tenor Chad Shelton) deserts his faithful sweetheart, Anne Trulove (soprano Jennifer Welch), consigns his soul to Shadow (bass-baritone Alfred Walker), swaps Anne for carousing and squandering his new fortune, marries the bizarre, bearded Baba the Turk (mezzo Stephanie Novacek) and gambles with Shadow, who condemns him to eternal Bedlam.
In the Wolf Trap production's crowd scenes, such as the London brothel melee, group interaction gave momentum to the drama. Ingenious sets, especially the contrasting backdrop curtains, also enlivened the production. Yet the leads seemed consistently freeze-dried. Though the orchestra, conducted by Stephen Crout, often sounded rough, the winds infused the performance with the freshness of a Mozart serenade.
Shelton, despite an occasionally harsh tone, made an energetic Rake; Welch was a properly wistful lover with melodic embellishments of sheer liquidity; Walker, a commanding Shadow with a magnificent bronze sheen to his baritone; bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel, a persuasive, resonant Father Trulove; Novacek, a swaggering Baba with a lower vocal register of incredible spaciousness; and tenor Nathan Granner, a buoyant auctioneer.
"The Rake's Progress" will be performed again Friday and Tuesday nights at 8 and Sunday at 2 p.m.