Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 25
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
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Music/Theater

Princeton Festival Brings Stravinsky’s “The Rakes Progress” to Operatic Life

Nancy Plum

Despite having the last name of Rakewell, the protagonist of Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress was not really a rake by the true definition of the word. When we meet our hero in the beginning of Stravinsky’s two-act and very complex opera, he could be considered a ne’er-do-well with dreams of marrying his true love (whose last name is coincidentally Trulove) and becoming rich with no discernible plan for achieving either of these goals. Stravinsky’s opera has been characterized as “neo-classical,” but what Stravinsky composed in part is a satire on three centuries of opera which have come before, quoting 18th century musical idioms, Faustian themes, and heroic plots.

The Princeton Festival and a principal cast of seven brought the myriad of musical styles and characters to life this past Sunday afternoon as the mainstage operatic offering of the Festival’s 2011 season. The production at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre was simple yet elegant, rightfully focusing on the complicated musical score which drew from several eras of music history.

“The Rake’s Progress” will be repeated on Sunday, June 26 at 3 p.m. at McCarter Theatre. Ticket information can be obtained by contacting the Princeton Festival at 609-759-0379 or visiting www.princetonfestival.org.

The cast assembled by Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk was vocally solid, even while jumping through operatic hoops. Tenor Lawrence Jones and soprano Jodi Burns played the ill-fated lovers with lyrical and dramatic singing, and solidity of strength which carried them through the three-hour production. Although a bit hard to hear over the orchestra at times in his opening scene, Mr. Jones grew with the role as the opera progressed, and by his final “mad” scene, had proven himself to be a strong and convincing singer. Ms. Burns had a demanding job throughout the production, reaching low into her register at times and showing her mettle in effective coloratura toward the end of a very strenuous afternoon. When singing together, Mr. Jones and Ms. Burns blended well, accompanied by very smooth winds from the orchestra.

One of the 19th-century plotlines Stravinsky borrowed for this opera was the Faustian theme of trading one’s soul to the devil, in this case Nick Shadow, sung by baritone Kevin Burdette. Mr. Burdette drew much of his malevolence from his facial expressions, contrasting with the light, 18th-century musical style of his arias. Stravinsky seemed to have borrowed heavily from Mozart’s Don Giovanni for this character, with Mozart’s trademark G minor key announcing impending suspense and the charm of Nick Shadow’s music belying his devious and menacing nature.

The Rake’s Progress, with a libretto by 20th-century poet W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, was originally set in 18th-century England. Princeton Festival remained true to this concept, relying on minimal sets accented by clever lighting work with shadows. The Trulove family did not have a great deal of money, well evidenced by the costuming of Mr. Trulove, played by bass Stephen Morscheck. Mr. Morscheck sang as a rich lyric bass, and was especially clean on the few recitatives in the score.

The other two female roles in this story were the antithesis of Ann Trulove’s sweetness and innocence. The brothel owner Mother Goose was certainly not a character one would take home for dinner, and the bearded Baba the Turk was definitely not a good marriage candidate, unless of course one has a pact with the devil. Both of these roles were heavy-duty mezzo parts, and both Eileen Jennings (Mother Goose) and Cindy Sadler (Baba) were up to the task. Ms. Sadler in particular demonstrated a true dramatic contralto voice without giving into the pitfalls of singing so low in the register.

The Rake’s Progress is an opera with many different musical styles coming one after the other, and conductor Tang Yuk held orchestra and chorus together well with clear attention to detail. Voices were timed precisely with instruments, and very elegant instrumental solos arose from the pit throughout the afternoon. This opera is one not done often and it is a tough one for the principal singers, but the artists of the Princeton Festival brought this musical challenge to the stage effectively, showing some exceptional singing in the process.

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