Northwestern Opera Theater serves up a visually striking, vocally underserved “Rake’s Progress”

Fri Mar 01, 2019 at 1:45 pm

By John von Rhein

Mason Cooper (Nick Shadow), Andrew Morstein (Tom Rakewell), and Grace Wipfli (Anne Trulove) in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” at Northwestern Opera Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The Rake’s Progress responds well to performances by student ensembles, provided that they can master the considerable technical and musical difficulties presented by Igor Stravinsky’s score, with libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. That much was made clear by the belated first Chicago performances of this witty neoclassical pastiche in 1976 by the precursor of today’s Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera.

Since then, the Rake has made only spotty progress in the local repertoire, having bowed at the parent Lyric Opera in 1994 and languished in conspicuous silence thereafter. This lack of local attention is nothing if not curious given that it was the famous series of Hogarth paintings Stravinsky viewed at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947 that suggested both the title and the general outline of his only grand opera.

And so Chicago-area opera lovers are greatly indebted to the Northwestern University Opera Theater and its venturesome director, Joachim Schamberger, for tackling this challenging but endlessly rewarding work, which opened in a visually striking, interpretively thoughtful staging by Schamberger Thursday night at NU’s Cahn Auditorium on the Evanston campus. Three more performances are scheduled over the weekend.

The show is double-cast so as to give as many Bienen School of Music voice students as possible a shot at the eight leading roles. And while it cannot be said that any of the principal parts are ideally cast, they all look good and plunge into their infernally tricky duties with conscientious gusto typical of previous hardworking Opera Theater students under Schamberger’s direction.

The staging itself is the star of this Rake. In his program note Schamberger (who also created the unit set and projection design) reveals his conception of the opera as a nightmarish dreamscape through which the naïve young hero Tom Rakewell passes but does not appear to influence. Per the positing of existence as a “clockwork universe” according to the philosophy of deism popular during the Enlightenment, Tom travels to his dark destiny aboard a turntable operated by his devilish nemesis, Nick Shadow.

This revolving disc enables Schamberger to pile various contemporary visual tropes atop the opera’s original baroque setting, within a fantastical design scheme he calls “rococo-punk.” The stage is dominated by a circular screen bearing the images of a giant wheel and clockwork spinning inexorably, as all of humanity – well, the 28-member chorus of the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble, as prepared by their ace director, Donald Nally – rides the wheel of karma, along with the country boy Tom and his ever-faithful sweetheart, the aptly named Anne Trulove.

The small stage gets pretty crowded most of the time, but the venue’s 1,000-seat intimacy keeps a tight focus on character interaction while enforcing the artistic self-consciousness and utter absence of sentimentality at the core of the work.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

None of this, alas, leaves much room for humor or the antic bizarreness and perversity Rake’s creators summoned from Hogarth’s prints. Even the brothel scene, in which an almost genteel Mother Goose presides over a clutch of gender-fluid “roaring boys” and listlessly writhing whores, comes across as more cluttered than carnal.

That said, there is plenty for the eye and mind to feast upon – lighting designer Andrew Meyers splashes the stage with garish colors while costumer Jana Anderson mixes 18th century bucolic fashion with punk pants and vests. Visually, at least, the show is a tour de force such as one seldom gets, or expects, from most college opera productions.

What’s more, a splendidly prepared student orchestra under Dean Williamson dispatches the off-kilter rhythms and freeze-dried forms of Stravinsky’s marvelously witty pastiche-score with Mozartean clarity, hard edges intact. Phillip Matsuura crisply engages with the crucial recitative accompaniments at the harpsichord.

Tom’s trajectory from countrified innocent to corrupted Londoner to pathetic madhouse inmate requires a fully professional singing actor to bring off with optimum success. Too bad that Andrew Morstein’s Rakewell remains pretty much the exuberant boy-next-door throughout. But he sings with a clear, well-schooled tenor (a rather constricted upper register notwithstanding) and throws himself gamely into a production that has him in various stages of dress and undress for much of the 2 ½ hour (with one interval) duration.

In a role created by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, no less, in Venice’s La Fenice at the opera’s world premiere in 1951, Grace Wipfli brings a fine light-lyrical soprano and an almost maternal sweetness to Anne’s arias, particularly the lullaby her “Venus” sings to Tom’s “Adonis” in the penultimate scene, which she delivers to touching effect. The young artist still needs work on her upper register, however – the high C of her big aria is piercing.

Nick Shadow is here a kind of amiable Mephistophelean stage manager who cues the conductor’s entrance into the pit and clicks the house lights on and off with a snap of his fingers. Vocally the role of Tom’s “friend” and eventual tormentor is well suited to Mason Cooper’s clearly intoned, warmly produced bass. But dressing this devil in a black-leather biker waistcoat isn’t enough to make him believably devilish, not when the portrayal is as devoid of malevolent charm as here.

Even more curious is the performance of Aryssa Burrs as the bearded Baba the Turk. She sings the part very prettily indeed and cuts a pert figure in her Arabian Nights hootchy-kootch outfit, without in any way coming close to the campy showiness that makes the role of Tom’s “arranged” spouse such an over-the-top delight.

Similar miscasting marks the forthright musical performances of Ryan Lustgarten as the auctioneer Sellem (his outrageous gold-lame pimp-suit does all the acting for him), Christine Ebeling as Mother Goose and Patrick Scully as Father Trulove. Gabriel Walker delivers the madhouse keeper’s two lines capably before the opera proper ends and we are left with the mock-Mozartean epilogue (think Don Giovanni) in which the central characters step forward to deliver the moral of this wry fable: “For idle hands/And hearts and minds/The Devil finds/A work to do.”

The Rake’s Progress continues, with alternating casts, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday, in Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston.; 847-467-4000.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment