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Stravinsky is a Character in Boston Lyric Opera’s ‘The Rake’s Progress’

By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, March 2, 2017

What do you get when you combine a brilliant composer writing for the operatic stage with a storyline of greed, illicit carnal desires and a pact with the devil? One of the Twentieth Century’s musical masterpieces, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. The Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) presents their new production of the opera opening on March 12 for four performances (March 12, 15, 17 and 19) at the Emerson/Majestic Theatre, in Boston. This tale of selling your soul to bargain with Satan, inspired from the 18th century English artist Hogarth’s multi-paneled depiction of the decline and fall of a young man into debauchery, is re-cast in a contemporary setting of vice. The lead character, Tom Rakewell, choosing a path of excess forsakes a simple life for all guilty pleasures, which in 1951 (when Stravinsky finished the score) is as contemporary a portend or forewarning as celebrity’s double-edged sword is today.

BLO has announced that this production flaunts a “visually styled fever-dream collision of mid-century pop icons and gaudy Hollywood excess.” BLO’s Stage Director Allegra Libonati speaks to Stravinsky’s personal reflection of an artist caught-up in the very real tug of war, as contemporary fame can pull the individual to the dark side, “Stravinsky was a feeler, a servant to his art and a believer in his deepest impulses — this production is, in part, a ritual of an enactment of an artist living through his past, reliving entrapments of his society, riding the tumultuous waves of his own inner landscape as he puts Tom on a wild, honest journey to freedom and love.”

As a vehicle for additional emphasis, BLO’s production takes the unusual step of placing a muted embodiment of Stravinsky onstage with the cast, providing an artistic psychological twist. Former Boston Ballet principal dancer Yury Yanowsky plays the liberated artist as an observer of the unraveling of Tom Rakewell, the ill-fated protagonist of the work. Mr. Yanowsky explains the complex context of this ‘presence’ by saying “to move… interpret these feelings… a freedom – to go through them [other performers] while mimicking… reacting to Tom… adds another layer, beyond opera – that relationship between Stravinsky and Tom.”

Allegra Libonati further elaborates on the complicated integration of scenes, emotions and effect of presenting Stravinsky as an onstage character: “The two of us [Ms. Libonati and Mr. Yanowsky] have been working together to create the picture, the movement and the totality of what’s going on.  Getting the opera with all its incredible twists and turns between the characters, … [with] that engine up and running, you can then put in the observer [Stravinsky] almost like a ghost, pushing the narrative forward.” While juggling all the operations of this brilliant opera, both artists are embracing a story about human nature, choices and frailty, giving its main character humanity.

Stravinsky’s score is supported by a libretto written by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman who expand on Hogarth’s parable theme. Auden, already renown as a modern English poet, would write other librettos, but a particularly strong connection with this work merged, as stated in Stravinsky’s own words, “As soon as we began work together I discovered that we shared the same views not only about opera, but also on the nature of the Beautiful and the Good. Thus the opera is indeed, and in the highest sense, a collaboration.” What evolves is a wonderful and powerful synthesis of melodic score and vibrant storytelling that takes center stage.

This production features a strong cast of emerging talent headed by Ben Bliss as Tom Rakewell, a 2016 recipient of Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Emerging Artist award from Metropolitan Opera, making his BLO debut. Kevin Burdette playing Nick Shadow—the Satan character, is acclaimed for his portrayal of Leoprello in BLO’s 2015’s Don Giovanni. Anya Matanovic, Violetta in BLO’s 2014 La Traviata, returns as Anne Trulove. Heather Johnson, memorable in the title role of BLO’s 2013 production of Lizzie Borden, is the exotic Baba the Turk. And, globally-recognized dramatic soprano Jane Eaglen makes her BLO stage debut in a star turn as Mother Goose.

BLO’s Stanford Calderwood General and Artistic Director Esther Nelson encourages all potential attendees with her enthusiastic recommendation: “It’s a rarely performed 20th century classic featuring a strong Stravinsky score and Auden and Kallman’s libretto. I couldn’t be more pleased we’re bringing Rake’s back to Boston and BLO with such an enormously talented cast.”

For more information and to purchase tickets click here.

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Cover: (l. to r.) Kevin Burdette (in the background) with Ben Bliss; photo: Lisa Voll.


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