This simple line occurs at a precipitous moment in the third act of “The Rake’s Progress,” Stravinsky’s only full-length opera. The scene is a graveyard, and Tom Rakewell — formerly respectable, now a ne’er-do-well — is about to lose his life. Earlier in the opera he abandoned his fiancée, Anne Trulove, to follow the mysterious Nick Shadow, who promised Tom fortune and led him to a life of debauchery. Shadow has now revealed himself as the devil and demanded his price: Tom’s soul.
Except that, at the last second, Shadow relents. He says: “No, wait.”
And he offers Tom a chance to escape, in the form of a card game. If Tom can guess the three cards Shadow picks from a deck, he wins his freedom. In part because of his memories of Anne, Tom guesses correctly, and Shadow, furious at his loss, condemns him to a life of madness.
This moment is one of several that puzzled director Allegra Libonati and John Conklin, Boston Lyric Opera’s artistic adviser, when they began to formulate BLO’s new production of “The Rake’s Progress.” They were points that just didn’t seem to make sense with the otherwise tightly driven plot line. Why wouldn’t the devil, in good Faustian fashion, just claim Tom’s soul and be done with it?
“There’s lot of inexplicable events that happen,” Libonati said by phone during a recent break in rehearsals. “There are some plot twists and turns that feel very much like the creator is manipulating his characters.”
Then it hit them: Maybe that was exactly what was happening. Why not make that manipulation part of the opera?
This is the daring conceit at the heart of BLO’s production, which opens on Sunday. Another character has been added to the cast: Stravinsky himself, played by Yury Yanowsky, the production’s movement director and a former Boston Ballet principal dancer. In a kind of concurrent meta-action, he is seen creating and inventing the piece as it unfolds onstage, directing the action and even struggling at times to retain control over his creation. It’s largely a silent role, with only two words of dialogue, those originally said by Nick Shadow in the cemetery: “No, wait.” (According to Libonati, they had to OK this change with the Stravinsky estate.)
It is, Libonati allowed, an unorthodox intervention. “Things like this, you always ask, does it serve the piece?” the director explained. “Does it serve the story? Sometimes it doesn’t. You don’t want to put Shakespeare on the stage in ‘Othello.’ ” A more conventional strategy would be to chalk those sudden plot pivots up to twists of fate, as many other productions have.
But, she continued, “if you actually personify that as the creator, it works brilliantly. It actually answers some of the questions that you ask when you watch the opera. Why did that happen, how did that happen?” As another example she mentions the moment at the end of Act I when Anne (played here by Anya Matanovic), having been deserted by Tom (Ben Bliss), resolves to go to London to find him. In BLO’s staging, Stravinsky actually kicks Anne’s suitcases forward, as if forcing her to take an otherwise perplexing action that will keep the opera on the composer’s chosen path.
Stravinsky was inspired to create “The Rake’s Progress” after seeing a similarly named set of engravings by William Hogarth, showing the decline and fall of a rich merchant’s son. Similarly, the opera has the feel of a morality play, a somewhat didactic allegory about good and evil.
But for Libonati, one of the surprises of the piece is “how incredibly human it is. It’s not a simple journey; it’s very complex and it really taps into how humans make choices.” She sees parallels between Tom and Stravinsky himself, who coveted fame and recognition in a way perhaps similar to Tom’s desire for money and pleasure, something hinted at in BLO’s production.
“In a way this is almost an exorcism of all of [Stravinsky’s] obsessions with fame, fortune, money, and all the things that he was kind of obsessed with in his career. You see them in Tom. So you see [Stravinsky] seeing himself, if you will, going through his own ‘Rake’s Progress.’ That journey — it’s not so simple as a morality tale. That’s what I love about it. It has the trappings of a morality tale, but the humans are going through incredibly complex emotions.”
BLO’s conception also nods to the place that “The Rake’s Progress” occupies in Stravinsky’s musical output, as the summit of his neoclassical phase. His score for W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto is translucent, energetic, and deeply poignant, a Mozartean fusion achieved nowhere else in Stravinsky’s output. And shortly after he completed the score for its 1951 premiere, he left neoclassicism behind for the unique adaptation of 12-tone technique that would inform the final chapter of his composing life.
“We thought, this is kind of like a last hurrah of an older style, and then he was set free, in a way, to create a new style of music,” said Libonati. “And that’s quite literally what he does onstage: He leaves that opera behind and moves into the next phase.”
Or as Tom puts it at the beginning of Act II, “Vary the song. O London, change!/Disband your notes and let them range.”
THE RAKE’S PROGRESS
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Cutler Majestic Theater, March 12-19. Tickets $25-$175. 617-542-6772, www.blo.orgDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.