Stravinsky’s Provocative ‘The Rake’s Progress’ Makes a Brief Return to the Met

May 3, 2015 Updated: May 4, 2015

Igor Stravinsky’s opera, “The Rake’s Progress,” gets more respect than love from opera houses. The good news at the Metropolitan Opera is that the stunning Jonathan Miller production is back. The bad news is that it is running for only three performances and closes May 9.

The opera, which has a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, was inspired by a series of paintings by William Hogarth (1697–1764). Like the paintings, the opera presents the rise and fall of a weak-willed young man.

Layla Claire, Paul Appleby and Gerald Finley (photo by Marty Sohl)
Layla Claire, Paul Appleby, and Gerald Finley appear in “The Rake’s Progress.” (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The Miller production moves the action to the 20th century, but the tale of corruption is just as relevant in the current Gilded Age. With politicians and secret service members caught with prostitutes, and massive swindles by Bernie Madoff and others, Tom Rakewell’s transgressions are still commonplace.

At the beginning of the opera, Tom Rakewell is engaged to Anne Trulove (who is worthy of her name) and is visiting her family’s house in the country. Anne’s father announces that he has found a position as an accountant for the young man, but Tom isn’t interested.

A mysterious stranger named Nick Shadow appears and informs Tom that a relative he didn’t even know, an uncle, has died and left him a fortune. Shadow offers to travel to London to help Tom settle his affairs.

Tom agrees to pay Shadow for his services in a year and a day. Shadow informs the audience that the “progress of a rake begins.”

It doesn’t take long to corrupt Tom; the second scene takes place in a brothel. When Rakewell wants to leave, Shadow turns the clock back. While Anne is at her father’s house wondering what happened to her fiancé, he is spending the night with Mother Goose—and not the one from the nursery rhyme.

Nick Shadow (Gerald Finley) leads Tom Rakewell (Paul Appleby) on a journey of moral corruption, bankruptcy, and finally insanity. (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Nick Shadow (Gerald Finley) leads Tom Rakewell (Paul Appleby) on a journey of moral corruption, bankruptcy, and finally insanity. (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

When Act 2 starts, Tom is living in luxury but is bored with his dissolute life. Shadow convinces him that he should marry Baba the Turk (the bearded lady in a fair). For some reason, Tom finds this idea appealing.

At one point, Tom dreams about a strange machine and wakes to find Shadow with the very device that supposedly transforms stones into bread. Shadow opines that they can make a fortune marketing it.

Once again, Shadow has led Tom astray. The business is a disaster, and consequently Tom’s possessions are being auctioned to pay his creditors.

Tenor Paul Appleby ably shows the decline of Tom Rakewell, while soprano Layla Claire conveys the purity of Anne Trulove, the woman Rakewell has rejected. (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Tenor Paul Appleby ably shows the decline of Tom Rakewell, while soprano Layla Claire conveys the purity of Anne Trulove, the woman Rakewell has rejected. (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Eventually, with Anne’s help, Tom defeats Shadow. But as the Mephistophelean figure descends into the earth, he curses Tom with insanity. The last scene is set in an insane asylum, where Tom has one more visit from Anne.

There is a jaunty epilogue in which the main characters express the moral of the tale. Anne points out that not all men are lucky enough to have a true love as faithful as she is. Baba declares that all men are mad. Tom expresses the danger of self-delusion, and the devilish Shadow reveals that he is man’s alter ego.

As the Mephistophelean figure descends into the earth, he curses Tom with insanity.
As Tom Rakewell, tenor Paul Appleby is simply brilliant, managing to negotiate a difficult score and give a credible performance of a character who goes from nonchalant young man to sinner and finally raving lunatic.

Soprano Layla Claire conveys the purity of Anne’s character and also sings angelically.

Peter J. Davison's set shows the trophies of a dissolute life, which Tom Rakewell (tenor Paul Appleby) enjoys with his wife, a bearded lady named Baba (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe). (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Peter J. Davison’s set shows the trophies of a dissolute life, which Tom Rakewell (tenor Paul Appleby) enjoys with his wife, a bearded lady named Baba (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe). (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sings as flawlessly as ever with her rich tone and wins laughs as the wife from hell—literally.

It is noteworthy that Appleby, Claire, Blythe, and Margaret Lattimore (who plays Mother Goose) are all graduates of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Bass-baritone Gerald Finley, another accomplished singer-actor, is perfect as the sinister Shadow.

James Levine has said that “The Rake’s Progress” is one of his favorite operas, and his conducting brought out all the beauty and wit in Stravinsky’s neo-classical score. The modernist set by Peter J. Davison is praiseworthy as are the lighting by Jennifer Tipton, the costumes by Judy Levin, and the stage direction by Laurie Feldman.

“The Rake’s Progress” will be repeated on May 9 at the Metropolitan Opera House; 212-362-6000, metopera.org. Opera lovers should take note.