How can one find authentic fulfillment in life? This age-old question is the subject of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” a 1951 opera with libretto by W.H. Auden that follows a young man’s seduction by the devil and eventual descent into madness. Boston Lyric Opera’s new Allegra Libonati-directed production premiered at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Sunday afternoon, and it seeks to connect the journeys of the character and the composer by having both of them present onstage.
In the opera, Tom Rakewell leaves his loyal fiancee, Anne Trulove, and departs for London upon hearing from the mysterious Nick Shadow that Tom has suddenly come into money. The score represents the culmination of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period — mostly tonal, with dark, shimmering dissonances. Though the opera was originally set in the 18th century, this production generally shifts the action to a stylized nonspecific 20th-century time, with the strongest visual influences being from the ’50s and ’80s. BLO’s production is a stunning experience visually and vocally, except for the considerable distraction of the addition of Stravinsky as a character.
Former Boston Ballet principal dancer Yury Yanowsky, last seen with BLO as the condemned man in Philip Glass’s “In the Penal Colony” last season, slicked down his hair and donned a baggy beige suit and spectacles to represent Stravinsky himself. The character provided some moments of physical comedy, such as when tenor Ben Bliss as Tom stood in a kiddie pool in a thunderstorm and Yanowsky hurried to hold an umbrella over the hero’s head. However, the scene in which Tom loses all his fortune and possessions (“Ruin! Disaster! Shame!”) was transformed into a tour of Stravinsky’s supposed internal torment. The chorus, wearing short white wigs and beaked Venetian plague-doctor masks, held up tabloid newspaper front pages with headlines such as “Sell Out!” and “Stravinsky: Finished?” — needlessly diverting attention from the main arc of the drama. Most telling, the Stravinsky character was nowhere to be found during the most affecting scenes.
Enough good things cannot be said about the cast. As the impetuous young Tom, Bliss initially let warm high notes flow with the easy assurance of someone who knows fortune has favored him, and later added a bitter edge and delicate quaver as his character was corrupted and then driven insane. Bass Kevin Burdette inhabited the role of the devil Shadow with sharp grace, dressed in an improbable combination of red and burgundy and gazing after Tom like a cat after a plump vole. Anya Matanovic was a magnetic Anne, singing with lilting, luminous confidence. Though sweet, her Anne was far from chaste, appearing in bedsheet-swathed delight with a nearly naked Tom when the curtain rose and then heavily pregnant at the end of Act II. It was a refreshing subversion of the virgin-whore dichotomy too often seen in opera. This also added a poignant dimension to the final lullaby scene, as she sang to both her new baby and the child’s institutionalized father.
Heather Johnson was marvelous as Baba the Turk, the circus bearded lady whom Tom marries at Shadow’s suggestion, performing with stage-savvy elan. Jon Jergens was perfectly over the top in an “Amadeus”-esque pink wig as the auctioneer Sellem, who gleefully sells off Rakewell’s possessions. Soprano Jane Eaglen slipped a grotesque glimmer into her voice as the brothel madam Mother Goose.
The Boston Lyric Opera orchestra’s sound was clean and colorful under the baton of David Angus, and Maja Tremizewska provided expressive harpsichord backdrops for the opera’s many recitatives. The chorus performed with engrossing energy, with John Conklin and Neil Fortin’s costumes and Jason Allen’s wigs and makeup transforming them from prostitutes to paparazzi to respectable citizens to asylum denizens. Julia Noulin-Mérat’s sets evoked Rakewell’s fear of a boring life with a backdrop of tract houses for Anne’s neighborhood, and later called on a surefire way to indicate Rakewell had gone morally bankrupt: making his digs look like Trump Tower.
The Rake’s Progress
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, March 12 (repeats March 15, 17, 19). 617-542-6772, www.blo.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.