A bearded lady and her taxidermied shark are just two eccentric characters livening up Stravinsky’s 1951 moral fable The Rake’s Progress, though the shark – not explicitly called for in the libretto – is unique to Jonathan Miller’s revived production, back at the Met Opera for the first time since 2003. W.H. Auden’s and Chester Kallman’s libretto, which details the downfall of lazy Tom Rakewell after he inherits a fortune from a vague relative and abandons his pastoral life for urban corruption, is a reinterpretation of William Hogarth’s 1733 series of paintings, set in early 18th century England. Miller’s production is more abstract in approach, not tying the familiar story to a particular time or place, though the shiny T-strap heels of Judy Levin’s elegant costumes seem to point towards the 1920s as a distinct possibility. Peter J. Davison’s sets, especially the bizarre, almost Dadaist enclosed trees and cloud-spangled wall panels of Act I, are effective in establishing the disjointed, ironic mood Stravinsky and Auden were going for. Aside from the bland, tasseled extravagance of Mother Goose’s brothel, the surreal scenery aptly creates a visual mirror of the jarring, jaunty neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s score, which underlines Rakewell’s naïve sufferings with musical caricatures in the form of melodramatic arias and bumbling harpsichord recitatives.

<i>The Rake's Progress</i> at the Met Opera © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
The Rake's Progress at the Met Opera
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

As the fabulous bearded Baba the Turk, Stephanie Blythe reprised her role with such intimidating vocals that any initial awkwardness at the now outdated and offensive humor quickly dissolved under her commanding presence. Her presence was vivid and comedic throughout her Act II entrance, as she sang obscured in a car with only her sassily-waved arm protruding from the window and then while stepping from the vehicle and immediately getting mobbed by crowds of onlookers, eager for a glimpse of her exotic beard. Later on in Act II, she babbles her way through an impressive passage (labeled “breathless chattering” in the libretto) in Rakewell’s formerly empty apartment, which she has taken the liberty of redecorating with the aforementioned shark and a slew of other taxidermied creatures. Joining her on the stage as Tom Rakewell was Paul Appleby, who gave life to the stereotypical character with his ripe, colorful voice and impassioned descent from complacency to insanity. As his exuberant singing became even less and less restrained, it seemed only fitting that it would disintegrate into hysteria and the eventually spastic musical and physical movements of the final scene in the insane asylum.

Stephanie Blythe (Baba the Turk) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Stephanie Blythe (Baba the Turk)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

As his jilted yet determined (ex) fiancée Anne Trulove, Layla Claire brought erraticism to vocal lines that were usually paired with flute lines from the orchestra pit. Although sometimes displaying strength and assurance in the soaring vocal lines (including during her Act I aria), her voice usually sounded slightly inconsistent as she faltered between over-the-top warbling and the conversational recitative sections, as if she were not so assured in her role – or the music itself. Gerald Finley and Brindley Sherratt, on the other hand, were adequate at conveying the blend of irony and cliché of their characters. As Anne Trulove’s father, Brindley Sherratt sounded poised, protective, and steady in his Met debut. Gerald Finley conveyed a careful mixture of Mephistophelean darkness and winking self-awareness as Nick Shadow, who continually shepherds Rakewell towards temptation and his eventual downfall. Mr Finley’s tone was as deep and dusky as Mr Appleby’s was shiny and ripe, and their Act III duet was one of the strongest moments of the evening.

Paul Appleby (Tom Rakewell) and Gerald Finley (Nick Shadow) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Paul Appleby (Tom Rakewell) and Gerald Finley (Nick Shadow)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

James Levine and the Met Orchestra were in fine form delivering one of their less conventional scores of the season, though the brass were somewhat uncertain in the Act I prelude. However, by Baba the Turk’s appearance in the middle of Act II, the musicians had come together with astonishing energy and conviction, from the agitated fluttering beneath Baba’s rageful aria (in which she smashes every dish sitting on the table) to the more sparse passages such as the harpsichord spinning out eerie two-finger melodies during Rakewell and Shadow’s duet in the churchyard. These jaggedly tonal passages were almost always matched by suitable imagery, from the surreal idyllicism of Trulove’s house to the towering white decadence of Rakewell’s urban (though thoroughly vacant) existence. By the time Rakewell’s belongings had been auctioned off by men in green aprons, the orchestra sounded as charismatic as the musical caricature required, and the musicians remained dauntless as the green aprons were replaced by the white aprons of asylum nurses who trailed the tottering inmates around the stage. The asylum was a gaping structure as empty as Rakewell’s apartment had been, though the dominant color was beige rather than white. After the bedlam and devastation of this final scene, the epilogue seemed even more ironic and disjointed than was probably intended by Stravinsky, Auden and Kallman, with the characters (including a beardless Baba) filing onto an empty, glowing stage and singing “For idle hands / And hearts and minds / The Devil finds / A work to do”. As the orchestra bounced down to their concluding chord, the moral of this fable seemed somehow fitting coming from a composer who settled down in Hollywood only to teach himself to read medieval English literature and write a major neoclassical opera.

****1