On our way home from Boston Sunday we listened to American Routes on New England Public Radio. Host Nick Spitzer asked Blues musician Jimmy Duck Holmes why so many of his songs were along the lines of “the devil must have been in you to make you leave me.” Holmes said that despite such lyrics no one is really led astray by diabolic forces; they were following their own desires.
If that was the case with the title character of Boston Lyric Opera’s terrific new production of The Rake’s Progress, he did have a personification of the devil, named Nick Shadow (sung by bass Kevin Burdette) to help him along. Tenor Ben Bliss sings Tom Rakewell, the Rake, who is enamored of Anne Truelove, soprano Anya Matanovic, but still has his own ambitious desires for Shadow to encourage.
When he learns that his prospective father-in-law (baritone David Cushing) has arranged a banking job in the city, Tom rejects it as boring and says he would rather live by his wits and trust to his luck. He also wishes he had money, which triggers the appearance of Nick Shadow with news of an unexpected inheritance. Tom goes enthusiastically off to London with Shadow to accept the inheritance and sample the attractions of the city, luxurious living, drinking, gambling, and visits to a brothel run by a madam called Mother Goose, sung by Jane Eaglen. Having wished for happiness, he marries the bearded lady, Baba the Turk (mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson).
The BLO production also includes a nearly mute personification of Igor Stravinsky, who composes as we watch, inspired by the series of paintings by William Hogarth depicting Rakewell’s descent into ruin and madness. Stravinsky saw those paintings in Chicago in 1947, and the opera premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1951. The BLO production opened Sunday at a similar gem of a theatre in Boston, the Cutler Emerson Majestic, where there are more performances Wednesday (still on despite the snowstorm, according to the website), Friday and next Sunday. It is definitely worth the drive.
This production has an outstanding cast of fine singers, an imaginative set, and an excellent chorus in a series of stunning costumes, all very well directed by Allegra Libonati. Stravinsky’s music is less familiar than his ballets, but suits the drama beautifully, as does the libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. This is a welcome entry in the BLO season, which concludes with a production of The Marriage of Figaro in April and May.
See photos and read reviews on the BLO website.