Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” proves a bridge too far for Frost Opera Theater

By Lawrence Budmen

Cameron Sledski as Nick Shadow in the Frost Opera Theater production of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." Photo: Shawn Clark

Cameron Sledjeski as Nick Shadow in the Frost Opera Theater production of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” Photo: Shawn Clark

The University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater productions have been consistently strong, presenting interesting repertoire in inventive productions.

On Thursday night the UM vocal department ventured into Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the campus’s Gusman Concert Hall.  Despite a brave effort, Stravinsky’s 20th century masterpiece proved a bridge too far for the vocal students.

The 1951 score is Stravinsky’s final neo-Classical work. With harpsichord-accompanied recitatives, the music is a quasi-Mozartian pastiche. At one point a horn solo directly alludes to a Mozart melody. Stravinsky, writing at the height of his creative powers, walks a fine line between parody and pathos and ultimately achieves both.

Based on the famous 18th-century engravings of William Hogarth, the witty libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman recounts the tale of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell who abandons his beloved Anne Trulove for the orgies and false glitter of London in tandem with his sinister servant Nick Shadow (in reality The Devil). He ultimately lands in the insanity ward of the infamous hospital Bedlam where even the faithful Anne cannot save him. In the manner of Don Giovanni, all of the major characters return in a sprightly epilogue to declare that the Devil will find work for idle hands, hearts and minds.

There were admirable elements in the Frost production. First and foremost was Alan Johnson’s superbly idiomatic conducting and the outstanding playing of a Mozart-sized contingent from the Frost Symphony Orchestra. Johnson kept Stravinsky’s rhythmic twists and turns on track in lively fashion and balanced the vocal and instrumental forces skillfully. Stravinsky’s wind and brass writing is particularly complex and the players brought accuracy and nuanced sensitivity to the big moments, starting with the clarion opening brass fanfare. Mirette Hanna’s elegant harpsichord tinkled with engaging humor while supporting the singers. Likewise the chorus, under director Jace Saplan, was consistently strong whether portraying prostitutes, servants, townsfolk or members of the insane asylum.

As the pure-hearted Anne, Ana Collado brought dramatic projection, deft coloratura and variegated coloring to the aria “No Word from Tom,” the brilliant curtain closer of Act I. At times she sounded almost heroic, making one believe in her doomed quest. Collado traced the simple melodic line of Anne’s lullaby for the dying antihero with moving poignancy.

Cameron Sledjeski’s light bass-baritone and cunning theatrical instincts embodied Nick Shadow. He was powerful in the chillingly staged card scene, bringing vocal depth and dramatic projection to the monologue “I burn! I burn! I freeze!” Sledjeski’s vocal security paid dividends in the role’s lower reaches and he blended beautifully with his colleagues in the charming Act I quartet.

Unfortunately, the production lacked a protagonist who could fully encompass the madcap fantasy and tragedy of Tom Rakewell. Andres Lasaga was initially too silly and foppish, causing one to wonder what could have attracted Anne to him. His timbre was basically sweet with strength in the upper register but his lower tones tended toward weakness and he was overpowered by Collado in duet. Lasaga seemed to be running out of voice in the second act; still, he rose impressively to the final scene. Indeed the aria in which the demented Tom thinks he is the Greek god Adonis proved his strongest and most dramatic singing of the evening.

As Baba the Turk, who Tom marries at Shadow’s behest, Jenna Doulong lacked the larger-than-life persona for the mysterious bearded lady’s rant. Her mezzo was too small and light and she failed to project the saucy characterization that can make the role a comic standout.

Stephanie Moore’s heavy weightmezzo and allure made the bordello proprietor Mother Goose a scene-stealing cameo. As the auctioneer Sellem, Ian Silverman brought a pithy character tenor and spot-on enunciation to the deft wordplay. Yotsawan Meethongkum handled the keeper of Bedlam’s lines with well placed bass tones.

Dean Anthony’s production made a virtue of minimalism. With costumed stage hands and members of the chorus moving furniture in and out, Samantha Miller’s attractive scrims were atmospherically lit by Bryan Kashube. The blood red that engulfed the stage for Tom’s death scene was particularly striking. Carla Cid de Diego’s period costumes mixed elegance and exaggerated extravagance in perfect measure. Anthony moved the action at a frantic clip, keeping the comedic and tragic elements in rapid interplay.

The Rake’s Progress is the type of major 20th-century work Florida Grand Opera should be producing. Great credit is due to the cast for their conviction and best effort but ultimately, this performance did not rise much above a student level.

Frost Opera Theater repeats The Rake’s Progress 7:30 p.m. Saturday at UM Gusman Concert Hall. Scott Tripp sings Tom Rakewell, Lauren Hartman plays Anne Trulove and Elizabeth DiFronzo portrays Baba the Turk.; 305-284-2400.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Fri Mar 3, 2017
at 12:44 pm
No Comments