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Review: BLO’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’ Is a Modern Take On a Cautionary Tale

By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, March 18, 2017

On a night where Stravinsky’s music was to take the stage in Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of the his opera The Rake’s Progress at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theater, there was additional anticipation for the character of the composer himself to appear as part of the production. He was mannered, intensely self-absorbed and as performed by Yury Yanowsky, (former Boston Ballet principal and movement director for this production) he bore an uncanny likeness through his “embodiment” of the compositional genius as he stalked the stage.

In this tale of making a pact with the devil, taken from 18th century English artist Hogarth’s series of paintings depicting the allegory of a young man’s fall into debauchery, Stravinsky’s score and W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s libretto (shown via surtitles) was delivered, in force but intimately by the two leading performers. Making his BLO debut, tenor Ben Bliss (2016 recipient of the Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Emerging Artist award from the Metropolitan Opera) gifted with a resonant voice, exuded a youthful and convincing portrayal of Tom Rakewell, mastering a handsome masculine presence while bringing an element of humanity to the role. Matched equally by a powerful and soaring voice was soprano Anya Matanovic (Violetta in BLO’s 2014 La Traviata) playing his betrothed, Anne Trulove. Ms. Matanovic provided an emotional performance of love and strength, hitting all the high notes until the last act (literally and figuratively), until Tom’s final fall into insanity. Matanovic always remained dramatically tender as the forsaken fiancée. Kevin Burdette emerges as a surprisingly exuberant version of Nick Shadow (the devil himself) by playing the character part game show host/part evil incarnate, and always owning the stage with physical delivery of his portending lines with wonderfully exaggerated body language.

(l. to r.) Anya Matanovic, David Cushing, Ben Bliss, and Kevin Burdette in BLO's 'The Rake's Progress'

(l. to r.) Anya Matanovic (as Anne Truelove), David Cushing (as Father Truelove), Ben Bliss (as Tom Rakewell), and Kevin Burdette (as Nick Shadow) in BLO’s ‘The Rake’s Progress.’

Baba the Turk, an amorous distraction and eventual wife of Tom’s, was played by Heather Johnson, (portraying the title role in BLO’s 2013 production of Lizzie Borden) with convincing bursts of emotion and possessive desires in soaring operatic calls to Tom, as Anne pleads for him to come back to her and their planned life together. Internationally-recognized dramatic soprano Jane Eglen plays the larger-than-life Mother Goose, brothel owner, and vehicle for Tom’s first stray away from Anne. Her persona and voice dazzles with the support of spectacularly glitzy show biz costuming, and flirtatious on-stage presence.

Heather Johnson as Baba the Turk.

Heather Johnson as Baba the Turk.

Stravinsky’s score for The Rake’s Progress is carried in full, surrounding force and exactingly delivered by conductor David Angus and an impressive 39-piece orchestra, resulting in a powerful synthesis of melodic score and vibrant storytelling. Stage director Allegra Libonati  drives the superficial “window-dressing” of all trick and no treat in her effective staging of this tale of reckoning fate. The final act—set in an asylum—with an effervescent yellow lighting effect, exposing the stage’s back brick wall creates an enclosed space of which there is no escape for the forsaken Tom Rakewell.

Julia Noulin-Mérat as the scenic designer delivers an eye-catchingly bright, glaring, visually sharp set as an anchor for both leads to play up against in this contemporary update to Hogarth’s parable. As the audience is taken from an idyllic and secure country setting with a surreal window view of blue sky, to the haunts of London, with dark black curtains that sparkle as backdrops that set a perfect mood leading to seduction scenes of carnal pleasures at the Mother Goose brothel, to the all-gold bathroom with enormous golden bathtub where Tom is slowly drowning in champagne, excess and falling further prey to Nick Shadow’s intentions.

John Conklin, an internationally-recognized set designer, and Boston-based Neil Fortin are co-costume designers and deserving of high praise for creating a shimmering “old Hollywood feel” for all characters, helping carry the contemporary storyline theme of Tom Rakewell’s entrapment with society’s obsession for riches. A shimmering parade of garish clothing, and clothing changes occur for lead performers and staged groups, which adorn carnival–like masks and matching attire support the status, wealth and the celebrity of Tom’s image.

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Ben Bliss (as Tom Rakewell) and Anya Matanovic (as Anne Truelove) in Bedlam.

As the moment of frailty in human character takes the audience to a conclusion in the final act, with Tom Rakewell finally quite insane on the floor of the asylum, and unable even to recognize his own dear and true love Anne, this production takes on a human poignant direction—the cast turns to us in our seats and asks if Tom is in the nature of all us. As stated with affect by Ms. Libonati, Stravinsky’s The Rakes Progress is ultimately a personal statement by the composer but in this splendid production, with the composer’s “embodiment” on stage, we, the audience, cannot only be voyeurs, but must participate “in a dream, where we cannot control the visions of our subconscious.”

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The Rake’s Progress presented by Boston Lyric Opera at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theater on March 12, 15, 17 and 19, 2017 (seen on March 15, 2017). Music by Igor Stravinsky; libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.  Conducted by David Angus; Stage director: Allegra Libonati; set design by Julia Noulin-Mérat; co-costume design by John Conklin and Neil Fortin; lighting design by Mark Stanley; magic design by Christopher Rose; movement direction by Yury Yanowsky; wig-makeup design by Jason Allen; dramaturg: John Conklin; surtitles design by Allison Voth.

Anya Matanovic (Anne Trulove); Ben Bliss (Tom Rakewell); David Cushing (Trulove); Kevin Burdette (Nick Shadow); Jane Eaglen (Mother Goose); Heather Johnson (Baba the Turk); Jon Jurgens (Sellem); Simon Dyer (Keeper of the Madhouse); and Yury Yanowsky as Stravinsky.

Cover: Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell in BLO’s production of ‘The Rake’s Progress;’ all photos courtesy of T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography.


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