Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pittsburgh Opera Mounts Stravinsky Work in High Style

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pittsburgh Opera Mounts Stravinsky Work in High Style

Article excerpt

A Mozart opera peppered with 20th-century harmonies and (intentional) wrong notes? An artist's satirical condemnation of debauchery in 18th-century London? A funny and entertaining show with a nasty bite, quite unlike anything else in the repertory? Any of these epithets might describe "The Rake's Progress," Stravinsky's only full-length opera, which Pittsburgh Opera is mounting in high style at the Benedum Center, Downtown, this week.

The story of how general director Christopher Hahn purchased the splendid David Hockney production, when San Francisco Opera was about to scrap it, is a saga in itself. The acquisition was a coup for Pittsburgh Opera, making it possible for the company to present its first mainstage production of this unique and wonderful work.

"The Rake's Progress" is a product of Stravinsky's "neoclassical" period, in which the composer assimilated older styles and made them his own. He used an 18th-century orchestra, including harpsichord, with clear divisions between musical numbers and recitative. But he didn't limit himself to the 18th century. The heroine's big scene is a Bellinian cavatina ending with a showy fast caballetta, while her lullaby to the dying Tom is cast in the form of a medieval motet. And Stravinsky liked to fool the listener by taking his melodies in unexpected directions and placing accents on the wrong syllables, creating a topsy-turvy musical world to match the plot.

The libretto, by the great British poet W. H. Auden (with contributions from Auden's lover, Chester Kallman), is a masterpiece of wit and irony, the plot based on a series of 18th-century engravings by William Hogarth: Tom Rakewell wishes for easy money, makes a pact with the devil (Nick Shadow), and leaves his farm girl sweetheart (Anne Trulove) for a profligate life in the big city. He ends up penniless in a madhouse but is saved from the devil's clutches by his faithful Anne. It's all caricature, and Mr. Hockney's arresting sets and costumes carry on the motif of exaggerated simplicity.

But simple, in this case, does not mean easy. The production requires split-second timing and clear verbal projection, while the score demands impeccable ensemble work and singers who can negotiate intricate rhythms and awkward melodic leaps and intervals. …

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