Portland Opera’s The Rake’s Progress: Conjuring a timeless fable

Hockney's design and Stravinsky's music combine for an immersive experience

Back in 2000, I experienced an opera that, with the exception of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s creations, did more to immerse me in another world than any other. San Francisco Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress, bubbles with poet W.H. Auden’s wry humor (in his libretto co-written with Chester Kallman) and some of composer Igor Stravinsky’s most affecting, Mozart-inspired music. Auden and Kallman’s timeless story of innocence destroyed by greed and selfishness traces the fall of Tom Rakewell at the bony hands of Nick (with a little help from Baba the Turk), despite the efforts of his sweetheart Anne Truelove   — a Faustian bargain with a 20th century twist.

Given its post World War II vintage (when atonality and modernism began their ascent), Stravinsky’s (unfair) reputation as more heady than heartfelt, and the cynical nature of the Hogarth drawings, the opera achieves surprising lyricism, such as the poignant end of the first act solo-turned-duo-turned trio. And even though their names make it clear that the characters are archetypes, there’s genuine feeling in the music they sing. For all its wryness, the Rake packs an emotional punch even fans of Romantic classics can appreciate. Stravinsky fancied himself Mozart’s “continuer” and operaholics will appreciate the feel of the composer’s famous trilogy with Lorenzo Daponte, especially Don Giovanni. 

David Hockney's design is the star of the show in  Portland Opera's The Rake's Progress. Photo: Karen Almond.

David Hockney’s design is the star of the show in Portland Opera’s The Rake’s Progress. Photo: Karen Almond.

But what really made that San Francisco production so enthralling wasn’t just how sparkling it sounded, or how adeptly it was performed (with a star turn by the great Welsh bass baritone Bryn Terfel as Nick Shadow) — but also how it looked.

That SF Opera production used duplicates of the sets, props and costumes created by the renowned artist David Hockney for England’s Glyndebourne Opera Festival in 1975, nearly a quarter century after Stravinsky’s “fable in three acts” premiered in Venice. Hockney collaborated with stage director John Cox on a design inspired by Stravinsky’s original inspiration: William Hogarth’s octet of 18th century engravings, which seem to visually echo Stravinsky’s lean, knowing music.

This weekend, Portland Opera brings that production to Portland for the first time. The performances coincide with Portland Art Museum’s current exhibition, “David Hockney: A Rake’s Progress”, and you can read more about it and Hockney and Hogarth’s art in Bob Hicks’s ArtsWatch story.

Cox’s assistant director in that SF Opera production, Roy Rallo, is in Portland to direct these performances of The Rake, and unlike many current Regieoper directors, he sees his job as “remounting John Cox’s production, so I have to get into the mind of what Cox intended.” And Cox in turn was channeling Stravinsky, Auden and Hockney (whom Rallo has also worked with), so this show presents “layers of interpreting others’ points of view,” Rallo says.

That means telling a story as realized by a visual thinker, through a series of symbolic images. Hockney’s crosshatched lines convey a universal feel, more like a comic book, graphic novel, or animation — vaulting the show beyond a specific time period. “I’m not trying for any kind of psychological realism,” Rallo explains. “I’m trying for a cartoon reality, because the piece is a parable. We’re dealing with contemporary and timeless themes [and] we’re looking at these ideas through fable. Through this experience, you are to understand something about human nature and the world by examining the themes the opera is placing before you, to be aware that there’s so much to plumb there. You want the audience to understand the symbols underneath, and how these symbols function in their reality as concepts running through human history.”

That reality isn’t Hogarth’s 1700s, he says, nor is it a personal one, as evidenced by Hockney’s own drawings made in reaction to Hogarth’s work, seen in the PAM exhibit, and nothing like his design for the opera. “When he was faced with doing the opera, he could have gone that same route, but because of the neo classical nature of Stravinsky’s score and the antiquated, arch nature of the text… the visual language deals not with Hockney’s own vernacular,” Rallo says. Instead, “he’s trying to apply his voice to something before him, in a way similar to the way Stravinksy is applying his gloss to earlier composers,” like Mozart and Handel. That’s why Hockney’s design meshes so well with Stravinsky’s music.

And that exquisite shared vision, in turn, is why, back in 2000, I felt so immersed in the never-was world conjured up by Hockney’s production of this “timeless” story. For all the powdered wigs and Classical-era musical gestures stippling the show, its music, story and design all conspire to elevate it beyond period costume drama, so easy for us to distance ourselves from, to the universal realm of fable, which feels like it’s always happening — including to us.

Portland Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress runs at Portland’s Keller Auditorium Thursday and Friday, June 11-12 at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 2 pm. Tickets are available at 503-241-1802 or toll-free 866-739-6737 and online at PortlandOpera.org.

Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress opens at Portland Opera. Photo: Karen Almond.

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress plays this weekend at Portland Opera. Photo: Karen Almond.

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2 Responses.

  1. cjsm says:

    FYI, Bryn Terfel is not a tenor.

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