Is there a less cordial opera in the “standard” repertoire than The Rake’s Progress? Stravinsky’s angular music gives off a chill: there’s rarely a moment you can bask in or wish to hear again for pleasure; yes, it’s interesting and well-crafted, but to what end? It is jumpy enough to keep you on your toes, but you soon realize that the ride is not pleasant and that its shiftiness is meant to disturb. His Neoclassical opera? An experiment.

Ben Bliss (Tom Rakewell) and Raehann Bryce-Davis (Baba the Turk)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

It tells a perfectly awful story filled with awful characters: Tom Rakewell is a selfish twit, and stupid, to boot; one feels for his plight only in the trick the devil plays on him. His reaction to his inheritance is sort of jolly and sweet but gives him the opportunity to unceremoniously dump his fiancée, Anne Truelove; his time in Mother Goose’s brothel is passive; his marriage to Baba the Turk, a Bearded Lady,  just manages to bring out his cruelty. The machine that makes bread out of Baba’s broken crockery? Is anyone supposed to relate, on any level, to this ugly cleverness? Anne is, as her name implies, True, True, True, and the rest are one dimensional. Nick Shadow is a real monster, and that helps, but sympathy for the devil, is not a great selling point. It is the musical and textual equivalent of being sneered at.  

Golda Schultz (Anne Trulove)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

By turns satirical, cynical, mock-comic (one laughs “at” rather than “with”), cruel and dour, then pathetic and gloomy (even in that “it’s only a fable” sort of way), one must clearly approach it with either emotional distance or a jeweler's loupe. An exercise, perhaps; a morality lesson. I used to despise it and could barely listen to it. At least I now find it a true curiosity, albeit one that weighs heavily on the soul. It is remarkable how successful Stravinsky's music and Auden and Kallman's text are; theater as mockery and cruelty.

Jonathan Miller’s 25-year-old modish production on Peter J Davison’s good-looking, sometimes skewed (marvelously maimed perspectives) sets, with the cast clothed in 1920s chic by Judy Levin, has not been seen in seven years, when, like this outing, less than a handful of performances were crammed into the last week of the season. Strange marketing.

Ben Bliss (Tom Rakewell) and Christian Van Horn (Nick Shadow)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

All that having been ranted, this performance was a marked success. The three leads were absolutely right: Ben Bliss, a boyish and sweet presence with a fine voice, was less irritatingly dopey than most Toms; he actually seemed as if he was aware of how life was zooming by, filled with episodes that equal almost nothing. Golda Schultz was a radiant and not-too-sappy Anne, her wonderful first and last arias simply gorgeous – one urgent, the other, over Tom’s insane, dithering self, quite moving. Christian van Horn, who is successfully working his way through opera’s devils, may not have been as remarkably tempting and snide as I recall when Samuel Ramey sang the role, but he was nonetheless effective, in a great role. 

The Rake's Progress
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

What to make of the role of Baba the Turk? She’s supposed to represent Tom's hope of sophistication and the excising of his past traditional values, but I’m not sure it can ever work as anything other than a somewhat campy gimmick. Whatever, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis, playing the role with daring and sass, was never laughed at, her rich, oddly-placed voice most welcome. James Creswell’s Trulove was solid in a role that can put a person to sleep.

The conductor, Susanna Mälkki, has become a welcome presence at the Met. Here she was best when the opera was at its darkest; the jangly ensembles, while not ineffective and musically on-the-nose, failed as anything other than picaresque interludes, much like Hogarth’s crowds in the etchings from which Stravinsky et al drew their inspiration. The Met Orchestra continues to dazzle; the chorus rarely mis-steps.  A truly fine performance.

I won’t mind another seven years going by before I see/hear this work again, but I suspect it will still leave me cold.