by BRUCE BROWNE AND DARYL BROWNE
Arts are often at their best and have the most longevity when they are a product of collaboration. The spring productions at Portland Art Museum and Portland Opera are a win-win-win collaboration: for audiences; for both arts organizations; and for the legacy of the artists themselves, past, present and future.
This all began as a half-posthumous collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and 18th century artist William Hogarth. Stravinsky viewed Hogarth’s engravings in the Chicago Art Fair in 1947, and was moved to write an opera about the story the artist portrayed. A satirist, Hogarth was a Herblock or Thomas Nast, a kind of voyeur of the social times and mores of his place and time. His best known series of these satires is The Rake’s Progress, his middle morality tale, sandwiched between The Harlot’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode.
Stravinsky went in search of a librettist. In 1948, he was introduced to W.H. Auden by the writer Aldous Huxley, a Hollywood neighbor. The two artists hit it off and the operatic collaboration for The Rake’s Progress began. The opera premiered in Venice in 1951, directed by Stravinsky himself.
Fourteen years later, John Cox, director of Glyndebourne Festival in England, was in search of a way to revitalize the now-popular Rake’s Progress at its eighth British production of the opera since 1953. He invited British artist David Hockney to provide set and costume design and it was this collaboration that has traveled three more decades to Portland Opera’s production this weekend.
This opera has many British connections. Of course, Brit number one was Hogarth; but both Auden and, later, Hockney were Brit expats during the time they were working on their respective contributions to the opera.
Stravinsky was no Brit, but he was such a cosmopolitan character that he could, and did, fit in almost anywhere: Russia, France, England by proxy, and finally, Hollywood.
In The Rake’s Progress, there are three stories in play. The first is the William Hogarth engravings of 1732-33. These eight pieces introduce the original Tom Rakewell and tell of his moral decline (and Hogarth’s view of moral decline in his own London). More detail on the entire Hogarth story as engraved in 1732 is available at the Tate Gallery website. For the synopsis of the Portland Opera production, go the Portland Opera website’s Rake page and click on “plot and program notes” at the bottom.
The second Rake’s Progress is the Stravinsky/Auden tale, in which we follow Tom Rakewell’s journey with the addition of several characters and props to lead him on his way. Finally, there are the interpretations of artist David Hockley, those very pieces now on display through August 2 at the Portland Art Museum. In these works, Hockney transports his “Tom” to New York City in the 1960s and sends him on a road of delightful debauchery. It was these drawings that were the calling card for Hockney’s invitation to design the sets for Glyndebourne in 1975. And it is versions of these drawings which we see in our present Portland Opera presentation at Portland’s Keller Auditorium.
Hockney’s designs for the opera are rigorous, in that they pay tribute to the crosshatching of Hogarth, but also playful, with splotches of green, red and blue. Stravinsky’s angular movement and abrupt shifts are mirrored in Hockney’s cat-clawed backgrounds. A 2D diorama effect evokes the austerity of the classical aesthetic.
Stravinsky is channeling his neo-classicism in his adherence to the classical opera form, conventional melodic phrasing, tonal harmonic underpinning, recitative with harpsichord, arioso-like passages, coloraturas and cadenzas — albeit in twentieth century garb. And classical references abound, in styles varying from Handel to Mozart.
Stravinsky himself confessed that his classical references are often more overt than fellow neo-classicists of his time. Several times in the performance there are passages or harmonic/textural designs that seem to leap from the scores of Mozart’s Magic Flute or J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion.
Hogarth is blunt in his portrayal of moral decay in London in the early 1700s. Auden and Hockney are blatantly and delightfully irreverent in their verbal and visual interpretations of the Hogarth and yet show great respect for the satirical innovation that was a hallmark of Hogarth’s artistic output. Auden alternates between rhapsodic prose and rhyming couplets, sometimes using them, as Shakespeare did, to close a scene or an operatic number. At the end of his first scene in the asylum, Tom sings: “I can only weep, so I must go to sleep.” The chorus has a good one: “Who cares a fig for Tory or Whig?”
When Stravinsky adopted Hogarth’s Rake for his operatic storyboard, he chose, wisely, a tale that has universal appeal. Numerous adaptations of Goethe’s Faust theme have been brought to book and stage: Gounod’s Faust among the first; Alder and Ross collaborated on Damn Yankees, John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe filmed Seconds; and Stephen Vincent Benét wrote The Devil and Daniel Webster, adapted by Douglas Moore for a one-act opera of the same name (and a personal favorite). Interestingly, however, Hogarth himself never invited the devil to his engravings. It was W. H. Auden, with collaborator Chester Kallman, who invited “Scratch” into his libretto.
Also not found in the Hogarth panels is the character of Baba the Turk. Baba is a beloved Rakes character and although she might have been left out for the sake of brevity or flow, any semi-noirish opera like this one needs its comic relief, and Angela Niederloh provides it in spades.
Poor balance between orchestra and the vocal trio stifled the impact of Baba the Turk’s rickshaw-esque entrance, but Niederloh’s presence carried the moment. I wished several times for my own magical sound equalizer, that could control the orchestral volume when the tenor and mezzo voices lay in the lower register. Or perhaps a gesture from the podium to quiet the orchestra. (The Keller is a good hall for singing, much better than the Schnitzer; but it’s not perfect.)
Ari Pelto guided and cued the vocal/instrumental collaboration into a work of art. Everyone on stage was confident in note, pitch and rhythm. Maestro Pelto made it all came together. The orchestra is peopled with wonderful players such as Hamilton Cheifetz, Karen Strand and Ann Crandall, with David McDade providing noticeable good “glue” with the often-present harpsichord.
The well-trained chorus, which never over-sang and, therefore, was nicely blended and tuned, was riveted toward the podium. Some of the stationary, face-forward choruses fit the angular staging and set design perfectly.
This was an opera evenly cast at a very high level. Everyone from Mother Goose (Beth Madsen Bradford) to the Madhouse Keeper (Andre Flynn), and all of the leading voices, shone in their own way. My favorite was David Pittsinger, whose voluminous bass-baritone voice was used with unusual flexibility, his every inflection dripping with Nick Shadow’s dark intent. The eponymous Tom Rakewell (tenor Jonathan Boyd) necessarily had the most singing, and never flagged, his stentorian, silvery tenor ringing through the house easily.
Anne Trulove (Maureen McKay) was a lyrical star in the Stravinskian diadem, her pianissimo high notes captivating at the end of the opera. The smaller roles of Anne’s father (Arthur Woodley, Mother Goose and Baba the Turk (Angela Niederloh) were equally well portrayed. Niederloh gives us a strong dramatic (but never over the top) star turn with her comic interludes. Bradford is the only other comedienne in the show: her role as an elderly Madam in Hogarth’s brothel was brief, but telling.
Auden has Anna, Tom Rakewell’s first true love, remain pure and naïve from beginning to end. (This a change from the Hogarth female lead who give birth to Tom’s child.) Her virtue allows Stravinsky to give her some of the most endearing moments in the opera. The first is at the beginning as she professes her love and then in her final moments with Tom in the asylum where she soothes him with a lullaby, the text of which is simple and musical setting simply precious. Stravinsky’s use of the downward minor third (sol-mi), the universal child’s call, to soothe his audience before watching Tom’s final descent.
As Portland Opera embarks on its new festival format in 2016, we look forward to more collaborations which will enliven our entire artistic community.
Portland Opera’s production of The Rake’s Progress concludes its run at Portland’s Keller Auditorium Saturday at 2 pm. Tickets are available at 503-241-1802 or toll-free 866-739-6737 and online at PortlandOpera.org.
Portland choral conductor Bruce Browne directed the choral programs for Portland State University, Portland Symphonic Choir, and many other choruses for many years. Daryl Browne is a Portland musician, writer and artist.
Want to read more about Oregon opera? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!