“For too soon the noiseless night will come.”
Exactly fifty years before planes slammed into New York’s World Trade Center, Washington’s Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, a quieter act of radicalism took place in Venice. At the richly ornamented Teatro La Fenice, Venice’s gilded opera house: the world premiere of “The Rake’s Progress,” an opera in English by one of the acknowledged masters of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky.
The cast was star-studded: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was the first Anne Trulove, Jennie Tourel, the first Baba the Turk, and Hugues Cuénod the first Sellem. The audience was star studded too, with rich and titled opera fanatics from all over Europe.
The opera, composed in 1947/51, was inspired by a series of engravings “The Rake’s Progress,” made in 1735 from earlier paintings by the English pictorial satirist and social critic William Hogarth (1697–1764). As is typical with things concerning Stravinsky, there is more than one version of the genesis of the idea. Stravinsky and his wife did travel through Chicago in late 1946. They did see works by Hogarth at the Chicago Art Institute, but what they saw was his series called “Marriage à-la-mode” that was part of a larger Turner, Constable, Hogarth exhibit. Where he may have seen the “Rake” images was in the exhibition catalogue.
The titles of the eight scenes are: “The Heir,” “The Levée,” “The Orgy,” “The Arrest,” “The Marriage,” “The Gaming House,” “The Prison,” and “The Madhouse.”
The libretto for this work is by the esteemed English poet W. H. Auden, with some work by Auden’s lover, Chester Kallman. Stravinsky was not pleased when he found out about the collaboration, though Kallman and Auden were so attuned to each other that even they could scarcely remember which lines, scenes, and acts were by whom. They transformed the eight scenes depicting Tom Rakewell, the son of a rich merchant, who wastes his inheritance on lavish living and whoring and winds up in Bedlam, into a series of tableau, adding characters and a story line.
As Auden wrote to Stravinsky: “It is the librettist’s job to satisfy the composer.” Kallman was more the opera aficionado than Auden at the time, though it was Auden who suggested the high “C” at the end of Anne Trulove’s big aria.
Stravinsky, who had never written in English, and spoke it with heavily accented, sometimes inadvertent “charm,” decided the time had come for him to celebrate, deconstruct, and modernize eighteenth century opera, especially Mozart, through his penetrating intellectual lens. He ordered the scores to “Cosi fan tutte” and some Handel operas too. His vocal writing is more expressive than in previous works such as “Oedipus Rex,” utilizing melismas and other 18th century conventions. The orchestra even has a harpsichord continuo.
Stravinsky’s only “competition” for opera in English was Benjamin Britten, who by then had several masterpieces in his portfolio. Though they professed friendship, Igor may have been stimulated by a desire to “one-up.”
The result has entered the standard repertoire, though somewhat less frequently performed, ever since the premiere. The Metropolitan Opera premiered it on Valentine’s Day 1953 (a sick joke?).
The admiration was far from universal however. A certain coterie, of predominantly French intellectual composers who despised neoclassicism, hated it. Pierre Boulez said “Quelle laideur!” (What ugliness!) upon hearing it. Axes to grind. Neoclassicism seems to have provided many an “escape hatch” from European horrors, as well as a “received accessibility” in terms of audience understanding. As Stravinsky said (he didn’t because it was ghost-written): “Art is freer when it is more limited, more finished, canonical, dogmatic.” Wearing an 18th century musical costume gave him an opportunity to create within a stylistic “limit.”
Did you know Rex Harrison made a movie called “The Rake’s Progress” in 1945?
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs