Making Progress: Authenticity Through Artifice

The Rake’s Progress is my favorite opera, and Tom Rakewell is my favorite role to perform. So you can understand my confusion when I hear many of my friends, colleagues, and fellow opera-lovers tell me that not only do they not love this opera, but actively DIS-like it. I have put my foot in my mouth enough times by now to avoid attributing their differing opinion to, for example, a brain injury. But I do understand that the complexity of the show—especially of the libretto—can be forbidding. But here’s my pitch: no opera will provide you with as fulfilling a catharsis as Rake if you make the (admittedly extensive) effort to learn the poetry of the libretto and absorb the vibrant energy of the score. There are many reasons to love Rake, but I am going to try to address one big one in the hopes of persuading the naysayers to give this jewel of an opera another chance: emotional authenticity.

I admit that the vocabulary and syntax of Auden and Kallman’s text makes the plot hard to follow, and the emotional and intellectual richness of its characters easy to miss. This is why a Rake consumer must take at least a little time to adjust her ear to the particular cadence of Auden/Kallman’s writing. Of course, the same can be said of Elizabethan theater, or the Gothic diction of Deadwood for that matter.

But having acclimated one’s ear to the style of the piece, the complex rhyme schemes and verbal summersaults of the libretto are delicious. So that you may fully enjoy the delectable hilarity and heartbreak of Rake, opera lovers, here is the libretto (¡including a Spanish translation!).

There is nothing veristic about the piece. I suspect that many Rake anti-fans are partial to Puccini and would rather be at Cav/Pag than Cosí. I, personally, am far more drawn to the Classical (and Neo-Classical and Minimalist) which hangs its structure on rhythmic invention and dance beats than to the Romantic (I am decidedly not a fan of the Neo-Romantic) which tends to let its tones unfurl in lurches according to the surges of passion in which its characters swim. So if you are a Pepsi person, I accept that you just don’t prefer Coke. (Wait, was that a burn on Pepsi and/or Neo-Romanticism?*) People like what they like and I accept that. But beyond matters of style (in other words, even if you hate the style of Rake), I think the primary miracle of this opera is how it is oscillates from playfulness to pathos consistently and seamlessly throughout the show. (This Edward Rothstein review of an early 90’s Salzburg production describes this rather beautifully.)

The musical and textual language can be so wry and arch as it evokes and parodies Classicalism, but when placed in the earnestly virtuous voice of Anne, for instance, the opera’s language becomes a genuine expression of deeply felt human emotion. After all the baroque irony of the show, when Anne sings her “Gently, little boat” ballad to wasted, insane Tom in Bedlam, the simple loveliness of the tune combined with the profound compassion and magnanimity of the character are overwhelming.

Grand opera ambitiously strove to articulate such feeling, but as the style in which those 19th century works increasingly fades from living memory, our contemporary witness to those works’ emotional power is challenged. As I experience the Bedlam scene, there is no barrier between my contemporary point of view and the emotional truth of that moment, even as it employs the techniques of a long dead era. Furthermore, Anne and Baba, although seemingly cartoonish at first glance, end up being endowed by their creators with greater dignity, intelligence, and self-determination than virtually any other female characters in all of opera.  For me, this engagement with history and style is what makes Rake ultimately so moving. As I mentioned, this is not verismo. This intensely self-conscious work works hard to create vividly complex human characters who, despite the presumptive archetypes they evoke, are unique and detailed. Stravinsky and Auden and Kallman entrusted to us a rigorous intellectual challenge in the show’s layers of irony and erudition. Having met the challenge, we are freed to receive the emotional impact of this artificially constructed narrative as a representation of an authentically human experience of genuine emotion. SO COME SEE THE SHOW!