Rake progresses at Curtis

Often I dislike schtick in opera staging. A mannered, heightened non-reality frequently leads to cliché: a reliance on a narrow vocabulary of gestures and expressive possibilities and thus a fussy and old-fashioned style of opera. I’d rather see something new and real. But there are many exceptions and I think Stravinsky and Auden’s The Rake’s Progress is one of the few operas where some sense of schtick is sort of necessary. Because this is a postmodern piece, an opera which operates self-consciously and at a degree of remove from itself. It dryly, dispassionately, brutally enacts cliché in the form of musical forms, styles, and plot devices long thought dead. That ain’t recitative. That’s ironic recitative.

With Rake, what you see isn’t exactly what you get. And when you collapse those layers the result isn’t very interesting. Such is the result of this Curtis Opera Theater production, at least, probably the first disappointing production I’ve seen from this formidable school. I admit that this was the first time I’d seen Rake live in a theater (I would have liked to see the Met production but my giant pile of grading forbade it), so my experience is rather limited. But while the production was musically quite rewarding, something was a little off.

Jordan Fein’s production rarely stops moving and tells the story in good style. But it also openly courts sympathy and humanity in a way that is difficult to reconcile with this cold, dry text and its angular music–or at least one that didn’t quite come off. It’s hard to feel much for a character stupid enough to believe, as Tom Rakewell does, in a machine that turns rocks into bread. But the principals act with relative naturalism, their action less tightly controlled and carefully choreographed than, say, last fall’s manic Gianni Schicchi

Amy Rubin’s attractive unit set provides one surreal element, a single unchanging room whose curtains occasionally billow inwards, propelled by some sinister wind. (This and the staging also suggest that the whole thing might have been a dream. Which, as a Konzept, doesn’t really pass.) Assorted chairs and tables make up the rest of the set; Ásta Hostetter’s colorful costumes are also on the schticky side, particularly among the chorus, who are characterized with broader strokes. Anne Trulove, appropriately, remains steadfast in the same dress for the whole opera. (Sorry, I haven’t found any photos.)

Anne is the character who comes off best here, though I suspect that is often true. Rachel Sterrenberg has a sweet and light soprano which carries well. The character doesn’t have a lot of depth–such is the peril of attempting a straight-faced staging of a postmodern piece–but Sterrenbrg made her sincere and honest. In the title role, French-Canadian tenor Jean-Michel Richer sounded very impressive: a substantial, musical lyric tenor which sounds destined for Faust and Alfredo. His tone is a little denser and, er, richer than one might expect to hear in English-language rep. The effect was not at all bad, though in a few places his English was. But there are more standard rep operas in French than in English, after all. As Nick Shadow, Thomas Shivone was loud and deep but occasionally sounded more buffo than menacing; the staging didn’t really help him out with the menace either. Lauren Eberwein was a glam, silent film-star style Baba the Turk (who didn’t seem to deserve the treatment she got) and made every work intelligible–even though the text-setting in this opera intentionally confounds intelligibility. (I saw one of two casts; I was there on Saturday night.)

Curtis doesn’t train choral singers, and the chorus was made up of a small number of obvious soloists (only around 10). The result was poorly blended and not great, and there is a fair amount of choral singing here. The orchestra, however, was much improved over March’s Ariadne, and Mark Russell Smith’s conducting kept things taut and energized.

Not Curtis’s best, but nonetheless an impressive showing for any school.

Stravinsky and Auden, The Rake’s Progress. Curtis Opera Theater at the Prince Music Theater, 3/9/15.

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  1. It's a shame you missed the met performances. They were some of the best of the season. Finley is always worth seeing and Blythe was ideally cast for once. And Levine was the closest thing I've heard to recovered since the Cosi last season.

  2. Peter addressed the question that came up for me; it sounds as though you were not able to travel north for the Met's production. This opera is definitely on my wish list to see, but I'm not sure that OTSL will get the spine any time soon to stage it here.