The Rake’s Progress is a game, a charade, operatic form as series of masks, expression disguised as classicism disguised as drama. Theatricality layers upon itself. Its most brutal, most pained moments are relieved from their burden by the incessant reminder that everything is fake, and thus ephemeral. But the gravity of those moments, the way that the heart tears when we hear the young Ann proclaim “I will go to him,” or witness the deranged, embittered Tom lament his lost love, ultimately linger. The power of the work is not in its clever games, but in the way in which emotion constantly manages to overcome them.
So even though I saw Spiderman and Darth Vader cavort around the Staatsoper stage, even though I got hit by a paper airplane thrown by a chorus member in the finale of the opera, I was still deeply moved by Kryzstof Warlikowski’s new staging of the Rake. Though his attempts to exaggerate the gleeful anachronisms of Stravinsky and Auden occasionally tilt towards excess, Warlikowski has created a captivating production, virtuosically directed and brilliantly sung.
Many modern Regietheater productions treat opera as a play-within-a-play, utilizing extra actors or bizarre scenery to cast a protective, Brechtian layer around the internal drama of the work. But where this is usually inappropriate for La Sonnambula or La Traviata, it fits the spirit of The Rake’s Progress. Before Warlikowski’s production begins, chorus members slowly enter a spectator box suspended above the stage. There is no curtain, and the opera starts with a brief spoken prologue from the “actors” playing romantic leads Ann and Tom, who point out that the very writer on whom this opera is based, Tom Rakewell, is sitting in the audience—and, of course, a spotlight fixes on an older gentleman, dressed in a tuxedo, sitting in the first row of the parterre. Throughout the opera, the spectator chorus feeds on the emotions of the characters, getting frisky during Tom’s seduction or going wild when he lands in an asylum in the end (which is when I got hit with the paper airplane).
This framing device emphasizes the idea of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism as a curtain unto itself, which Stravinsky and Auden acknowledge in the opera’s postlude, where the characters step out of their roles and tell the moral of the story. It also jells nicely with Warlikowski’s overall “concept,” which is a bit more problematic. Warlikowski’s Rake is a parody of modern American capitalist culture, but a very specific one—he actually re-casts Nick Shadow, the devilish tempter of Tom, as Andy Warhol himself. Rather than adventuring to London to find his fortune, Tom journeys from the heartland of America to the sexy, sleazy, and just a little bit artsy downtown New York and finds himself in Warhol’s famous 1960s factory loft. Video screens broadcast live footage filmed on-stage or images of Warhol and his circle.
Casting Tom’s adventures as a sharp indictment of American consumerism actually brings the opera closer to the composer’s original inspiration, the rather harsh social critique of Hogarth’s 18th-century engravings titled The Rake’s Progress. Hogarth’s lambasting of English society is diluted by Stravinsky’s anachronistic games and Auden’s wordplay; Warlikowski refreshingly restores this sense of denunciation.
That said, the criticism occasionally stretched itself a bit thin. During the auction scene, when all of Tom’s worldly goods are sold to pay off his bankruptcy, a veritable parade of kitschy characters including Darth Vader, Minnie Mouse, Elvis, a NASA astronaut, Spiderman (clearly a knock at the new Broadway show), and the bunny suit which seems obligatory to any Regie production, pranced around stage in a heavy-handed mocking of capitalism. And the procession of transvestites and hookers waltzing through Warhol’s loft, though perhaps historically accurate, seemed a bit much.
But mostly, the updating worked efficiently and effectively. Tom, Ann, and Trulove eat fast food in the opening scene, their only luxury a bottle of ketchup; later, Warlikowski demonstrates the bizarre domesticity of Tom, Shadow/Warhol, and the bearded lady Baba the Turk by showing the three at the breakfast table, Shadow reading the New York Times. The “audience” chorus suspended above the stage is dressed as a group of 1960s Mad Men-style conformists, and their gradual transformation from stuffy to liberated echoes the spirit of the times in which Warlikowski sets the opera. Though the Warhol juxtaposition often makes for a difficult fit, it generally seems to work; for once, an opera director has figured out how to symbolize contemporary culture without horribly overselling it.
But the true strength of the production lies not in Warlikowski’s concept, but in the acting of the main characters. The young lovers Ann and Tom, smartly cast as young singers, appear convincingly carefree in the beginning, and Florian Hoffmann’s portrayal of Tom’s corruption by society moves in its subtlety. Their modern costumes work well: Tom and Ann are dressed like hipsters, and Trulove (convincingly sung by Andreas Bauer) in jeans and a sleek cowboy hat, the Americana gentleman.
Gidon Saks’ Nick Shadow steals the show, striking an uneasy but powerful balance between trickster and demonic force. His stentorian bass-baritone captured a wide array of emotion—from the satisfying mix of fake-regret and mischief when he tells Tom that his wealthy father has died, to his bellow of “I was never saner,” when convincing Tom to marry Baba the Turk, to his chilling fury in the graveyard, in which, while wagering for Tom’s soul, he declares “I am, you may have often ten-times observed, really compassionate.”
Rounding out the excellent production, Ingo Metzmacher conducted a sharply-defined reading from the harpsichord, with vivid orchestral playing and just the right blend of neo-classical punchiness and Mozartean lyricism.