Music Preview: Recalling the American premiere of Stravinsky’s magnificent 'The Rake’s Progress'
April 28, 2016 12:00 AM
Adam Bonanni, dressed as Tom Rakewell, performs an aria from Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," during a Third Thursday event at the Carnegie Museum of Art on April 21. The opera singers performed in front of a painting by British artist David Hockney, who designed the sets, costumes, wigs and props. Pittsburgh Opera's production of "The Rake's Progress" opens Saturday at the Benedum Center.
Ken Friedman/San Francisco Opera
A scene from San Francisco Opera's 2000 production of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress" illuminates the cross-hatching technique at the core of the David Hockney-designed sets and costumes.
Toni West, costume supervisor with Pittsburgh Opera, prepares Alek Shrader (as Tom Rakewell) for a photo shoot on the set of Stravinsky's opera, "The Rake's Progress" at the Pittsburgh Opera headquarters in the Strip District on April 18.
Alastair Muir for Portland Opera.
David Hockney's production of "The Rake's Progress" went to Portland Opera in Oregon prior to arriving in Pittsburgh.
By Robert Croan / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pittsburgh Opera production of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” the neoclassical opera by Igor Stravinsky, opens this weekend at the Benedum Center. That opera has become a standard of 20th century repertoire, but Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan saw the first performance in the U.S. more than six decades ago. He recounts his vivid memories of that experience:
Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “The Rake’s Progress”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Tuesday; 7:30 p.m. May 6; 2 p.m. May 8.
Where: Benedum Center, Downtown
Tickets: $12.75-$157.75, 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.org. Footage of an interview between Andy Warhol and David Hockney, who designed this production of “The Rake’s Progress,” will be played in the Benedum Center lobby before each performance.
I was barely a teenager when Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” had its world premiere in Venice on Sept. 15, 1951. I was not at that performance, although I have since listened to it on a private recording. I lived in New York, however, and was fortunate to have attended the American premiere 17 months later, on Valentine’s Day afternoon, 1953. That production, directed by George Balanchine, remains indelible in my mind.
I found the story (and the Hogarth engravings that inspired it) funny and scary. I don’t know that I appreciated the beauty of W.H. Auden’s poetic libretto at the time, but I remember reacting to Stravinsky’s setting of the opening line: THE woods ARE green AND bird and BEAST at play. Critics attributed the odd stresses to the Russian-born composer’s insufficient command of English, but I felt then, as I do now, that he wanted it that way, to suggest a topsy-turvy world all askew.
And what a thrill it was hearing this magnificent music when it was new. The great Fritz Reiner, former music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted, because Stravinsky’s baton technique was not up to the intricacies of his own score. One segment that remained with me even when the opera was rarely performed was Anne Trulove’s magnificent solo scene, now a favorite audition piece for aspiring lyric sopranos. The gorgeous Viennese soprano Hilde Gueden was Anne, and I can still hear her glorious sound in the descending scale that jumps to an unexpected sustained high C at the aria’s end. I also loved Baba the bearded lady, especially the way Tom interrupted her endless melismas by putting his wig over her head, back to front — then, Baba continuing where she left off when the auctioneer accidentally uncovered her an act later.
And there was that ingenious detail, a universal sentiment, in which Tom speaks the immortal line after completing his first aria: “I wish I had money.”
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