Located on the picturesque Miraflores estate in sunny Santa Barbara, The Music Academy of the West must be one of the most attractive summer music training programs in the world. Founded in 1947 by opera legend and longtime faculty member Lotte Lehmann, the Music Academy has thrived for more than half a century and trained such notable figures as Grace Bumbry, Thomas Hampson, Juan Diego Flórez, and Susanna Phillips. Not only do its young musicians get to study their craft in the paradise-like environs of a secluded artist colony in one of California's most beautiful cities, but a stellar roster of faculty and visiting artists have made this institution one of the elite programs of its kind. Succeeding Lehmann and Martial Singher as director of the vocal department, Marilyn Horne has fostered the development of the Academy's aspiring singers since 1997, and with supporting faculty members like Warren Jones, John Churchwell, and Carrie-Ann Matheson, you know this isn't just Marlboro on the beach; it's an invaluable experience, especially for operatic artists. One of the highlights of the Music Academy's eight-week term, reestablished by Horne when she assumed control of the program, is a fully-staged opera and this year's offering was Stravinsky's neoclassical mash-up morality tale, The Rake's Progress (1951).
The Rake's English, couplet-laden libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman make it a curious standard repertory work, but, aside from the difficulty of casting its high-lying marathon tenor role of Tom Rakewell, it seems an excellent vehicle for a student production. Episodic and alternating between scenes of great introspection for single characters and boisterous crowd scenes, the work offers diverse musical challenges and dramatic situations. Stravinsky's score accords many exposed solos for various members of the orchestra, so oboe, bassoon, trumpet, and flute players all get opportunities to shine along with the singers on stage. Further, the opera provides a cross-section of music history, partially digested in the gut of Stravinsky's polyglot imagination. Obvious parallels exist between it and older works: the epilogue and use of harpsichord accompaniment for recitatives conjure Mozart's operas, especially Don Giovanni; the character of Anne Trulove is a 20th-century Micaëla (from Carmen); the central plot of a bargain with the devil shares plenty with the Faust operas. Stravinsky's crash course through pre-1951 opera even utilizes the models of Baroque opera to tell this story of moral corruption and suffering innocence.
For the Music Academy's production of The Rake's Progress, the performance was mounted off-campus in Santa Barbara's renovated Granada Theater. Director David Paul utilized little in the way of sets for his production, relying instead on a few select props to give the impression that scenes were indoors or outdoors; public spaces versus private ones. The management of crowd scenes was excellent, especially the auction scene where Sellem, sung with manic intensity by John Kapusta, sells all of Tom's possessions to a group of excited speculators. Smaller-scale scenes varied in their impact as the principals appealed directly to the audience in their soliloquies, a strategy that I felt worked for Nick Shadow and Anne Trulove, but was less effective for Tom's numerous solos.
The role of Tom Rakewell is a punishing, unrelenting part that has its actor on stage and singing for most of the evening. Canadian tenor Adam Fisher was up to the challenge and managed the assignment well, showing only slight signs of fatigue in the last scene. He was, at times, difficult to hear, especially in the various ensembles, but Fisher's fresh, light sound lent his characterization a fragile innocence that made his corruption all the more tragic. Jessica Strong, stepping in for an ailing colleague on short notice, communicated the predicament of Anne Trulove with touching simplicity and silvery tone. Her aria "Quietly night" was beautifully sung, even if conductor Alexander Lazarev had the tempo a few clicks too fast. Cameron McPhail was excellent as Nick Shadow. The Canadian baritone's sonorous voice filled the room with ease and his characterization was clearly drawn and memorable. The graveyard scene and cursing of Tom with insanity was the dramatic highpoint of the performance, to which the subsequent asylum scene felt to drag. Kate Allen played a subdued Baba the Turk and Gerard Michael D'Emilio was appropriately parental as Trulove.
The nearly all-student Academy Festival Orchestra played Stravinsky's challenging work with precision and finesse. The various wind and brass players, in particular the trumpets during Baba the Turk's scenes, acquitted themselves brilliantly, and Lazarev kept the entire ensemble tight and focused. Clearly, the students of the Music Academy of the West come to Santa Barbara for more than the sunshine, and the local community, which filled the old theater and enthusiastically applauded the performance of this strange opera, value the talent they bring.
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