“The Rake’s Progress” doesn’t stray in fine Portland Opera production underlined with Hockney artwork

by James Bash James Bash writes articles for a variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, Open Spaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music.James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kathy. 23.06.2015

Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” was served with verve and wit by Portland Opera on Sunday afternoon (June 14th) at the Keller Auditorium. Led by the superb singing of Jonathan Boyd, the agile playing of the orchestra under conductor Ari Pelto, spot-on direction from Roy Rallo, and the imaginative backdrops of David Hockney, “The Rake’s Progress” was an engaging affair from start to finish.

Composed by Stravinsky after he became inspired by a series of paintings created by the 18th Century artist William Hogarth, “The Rake’s Progress” traces the story of Tom Rakewell, a likeable but foolish young man who rejects the woman (Anne Truelove) who loves him and, follows his alter ego (Nick Shadow) to squander his fortune on wild living. After losing every penny and his mind, Tom ends up in Bedlam (the hospital for the mentally ill), only to be consoled by Anne.

One is tempted to think that a 21st Century audiences would be far too jaded to enjoy such a cautionary tale as “The Rake’s Progress,” but the audience seemed to enjoy the opera immensely. Part of the credit was due to Hockney’s designs, created for the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in 1975. They looked as fresh as ever. Hockney’s cross-hatch line art deftly harkened back to the engravings that were made from Hogarth’s original paintings.

Another big plus was Boyd, who drew listeners into Rakewell’s world with effortless and brilliant singing. He showed plenty of volume when needed or he could taper things down to a whisper. This performance, among the many others that he has given for Portland Opera, has helped to solidify his status as one of the best, most consistent and engaging tenors to have sung for the company.

Maureen Mckay’s Anne was pure sweetness from the start, and as she resolved not to give up on Tom, her voice acquired flint and urgency. With a wink and a nod, David Pittsinger gave Shadow some likeable qualities, which made him a little less malevolent.

Angela Niederloh pouted and fumed with vigor as Baba the Turk, but it was difficult to hear her voice whenever the orchestra got above mezzo-forte. Arthur Woodley gave a solid performance as the stern yet fair father of Anne. Padded to the hilt, Beth Madsen Bradford had a field day as the lascivious Mother Goose. As the auctioneer Sellem, Ian José Ramirez created a very animated presence, running circles around the crowd and drumming up sales as quickly as possible. André Flynn distinguished himself as the Keeper of the Madhouse, and the opera chorus, prepared by Nicholas Fox, created a balanced, blended sound.

Rallo’s stage directions wonderfully mixed natural action with tableaux-like pauses so that the audience could reflect on the scene for a moment or two, such as when Anne reached out for Tom while Shadow drew him away from her. The comic interplay between Tom and Baba generated peals of laughter. 

The libretto, written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, darted past pure poetry with a double-edged sword, such as “Leave all love and hope behind, out of sight is out of mind,” which introduced the Bedlam scene. Another poetic aphorism that was written one section of scenery stated “Shut Your Ears to Prude and Preacher. Follow Nature as Thy Teacher.”

The orchestra performed Stravinsky’s treacherous score with finesse under conductor Ari Pelto (in the picture). Fleeting passages that sounded like Handel and Donizetti zipped by, but the final scene in which the principals came to the front and expounded over the moral of the story in light-hearted fashion drew directly on Mozart. Ah!

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