The Rake's Progress

Not at all what I was expecting, which I guess was "Rite of Spring" with arias. The harmonies were mostly very simple and melodious. The program notes speak of a "neoclassical period", and note that Stravinsky went to see three Mozart operas while writing "Rake". The action, too was very simple - so simple it seems almost like a parody of itself. This makes the opera seem funny, although if you listen to what it says, it is really very depressing.

The opera is, of course, based on Hogarth's famous series of engravings of the same title. Since Hogarth didn't provide any commentary or other text, Stravinsky's librettists (W.H. Auden!) were pretty free in matters of plot.

The opera starts with Tom Rakewell and Anne Truelove disporting as young lovers in the spring. Anne's father comes out and says that he has talked one of his friends in the City into making Tom a job offer. Tom declines, remarking in an aside that he would prefer to just keep himself available for whatever fortune should provide. Soon thereafter, fortune does provide - one Nick Shadow shows up, and informs Tom that an Uncle he was unaware of has died and left him lots of money. He informs the Trueloves of his good fortune. Then Nick informs him that his fortune needs looking after, and that he must come to London to do so, or risk losing it. Tom claims to know nothing about looking after fortunes, so Nick says he will show him how, and offers to serve him for a year and a day, and then to settle between them how much he is owed for the service. To this Tom agrees and the two of them are off to London to mind his fortune.

Once in London, Nick introduces Tom to Mother Goose's brothel. Then they proceed to have an orgy, right there on the stage. (With a less distinguished audience, this would have been called prurient, disgusting, and indecent. Clearly unfit for family viewing.)

Next we see Tom at home. Nick says that he is a slave to desire, and that the only way for him to be free is to marry somebody he doesn't desire at all. (Sounds like a pretty weird argument to me, but Tom buys it.) Nick's candidate is Baba the Turk, a show biz personality, specifically, a bearded lady. So he woos and weds this lady (mercifully offstage), and is in the act of bringing her home for the first time, when he meets Anne Truelove, who has showed up to be helpful. She is nonplussed.

Nick, carefully persuading Tom that it is his own idea, gets Tom to invest all his money in an obviously fake machine that turns stones into bread or sequences DNA or something. This is clearly not a good investment, and Tom loses all his money, and the affair ends up with all Tom's goods being sold at auction, including Baba the Turk (she declines to be sold, and goes back into show business).

Then, as they walk through a graveyard, Nick informs Tom that his year and a day have passed. Tom professes to be a bit low on funds, and Nick demands his soul. The music for this scene is the only part of the opera anything like what I was expecting - weird and evocative, and strangely instrumented, on the solo harpsichord. After charging Tom to kill himself, Nick relents at the last second, and offers to gamble for his soul with a card game. Not a very even one though - he proposes to cut the deck three times, and Tom must name all three cards to win. The first two cards Nick gives hints, either spoken or by mannerism, and Tom guesses them. The third card Nick is careful to give no hints, and thinks it will further hinder Tom if he chooses a card that he picked before. Tom's thoughts turn to Anne Truelove, and he cries out "Queen of Hearts", which happens to be the right answer. Nick is furious, and before vanishing he curses Tom with insanity.

Here I think Stravinsky departs somewhat from his source. Hogarth knew full well what his bedlam scene meant - the general paresis of third stage syphilis. Stravinsky seems to have something more romantic in mind. Tom thinks himself Adonis, waiting for his Venus. Anne comes to see him in Bedlam, goes along with his delusion and plays his Venus. She soothes him into falling asleep, and leaves. He wakes up again, calls for Venus, and dies.

As a moralistic epilogue, the principals drop their characters, and sing something implying that in real life, true love may appear, but does not necessarily conquer all. Being what I am, however, I prefer the moral sung by Mr. Truelove in the first act. "[My daughter] is free to marry a poor man, but I am determined that she shall not marry a lazy one."