The Rake’s Progress

Anne Trulove (Layla Claire) shares a tender moment with her beau Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader).
Anne Trulove (Layla Claire) shares a tender moment with her beau Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader).

Pittsburgh Opera gave the first of four performances of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress last night – the magnificently colorful and brilliantly effective David Hockney production marking the first time the opera has been heard in its entirety here – before a distressingly slim house. On the main floor and the upper tiers, entire rows and sections gaped back in empty silence at the performers on the stage, several of whom were making their first appearances in the city. Director Christopher Hahn and the company went to extraordinary lengths and expense to offer this remarkably artistic collaboration, and it can only be hoped that the remaining performances will draw better than last night’s. Frequently in such cases critics resort to the ages old adage of, “what the audience lacked in numbers, it more than made up for in enthusiasm.” But the small gathering went beyond that. The genuine opera lovers were out last night; those who usually go only to be seen and heard rather than to see and hear stayed home. The applause was loud, long and enthusiastic between the acts, and at the final curtain it must have warmed the performers to receive such sustained and unusually demonstrative plaudits.

Under the circumstances, allowances must be made for any slight deficiencies on the part of the cast. For despite the fact that they must remember exceptionally difficult music, countless words, action, and keep an eye out for the conductor, they get more than enough opportunity to see the audience, and while a packed house may both inspire and/or enervate a singer, the opposite has an effect as well, no matter how well the professionalism of the performers keeps it from becoming obvious. But all things considered, the cast kept its composure to a remarkable degree, and many fine things were seen and heard. Of the David Hockney production itself, much has been said in the media in recent weeks, and the accompanying photographs are examples of pictures being worth thousands of words. The production gives the impression that one is looking at a gigantic storybook of an 18th century fable that has come to life, and the exceptionally distinguished lighting effects by designer Cindy Limauro add

greatly to the impact of the illusion.

Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader) prepares to depart for London with Nick Shadow (David Pittsinger) to receive his rich uncle’s alleged inheritance.
Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader) prepares to depart for London with Nick Shadow (David Pittsinger) to receive his rich uncle’s alleged inheritance.

Stravinsky’s orchestration, much like the vocal parts, is a combination of the purely melodious and somewhat dissonant, cleverly entwined and complex, and Conductor Antony Walker showed his usual command in keeping the large group of instrumentalists in time and tune, despite an occasional slip in intonation and the almost inevitable horn that went astray once or twice. The addition of a harpsichord, effectively played by Allen Perriello, came as a pleasant surprise, since frequently a piano makes do in operas calling for this ancient instrument. But here, as elsewhere, no stone was left unturned in producing the work as truly in keeping with the intentions of the composer and librettists as possible. The chorus under Mark Trawka was as effective as always. They are a large and remarkably talented group, each appearing to play small, individual roles, but always working together as a body of sound, and picturesque and varied in their appearance and action. Mr. Walker and Mr. Trawka are to be commended for the results they achieved with both groups of musicians, for they were indeed highlights of the evening.

“I’m not going to be ignored”  - Baba the Turk (Jill Grove) in a newlywed spat with Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader).
“I’m not going to be ignored” – Baba the Turk (Jill Grove) in a newlywed spat with Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader).

The American bass-baritone David Pittsinger returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since 2008, making his thirteenth appearance with the company, as the evil and mysteriously seductive Nick Shadow, who tempts the hapless, helpless, weak-willed country boy Tom Rakewell away from Anne and to London and ruination. He couldn’t have been heard and seen to better advantage. His voice is powerfully effective, his English diction crisp and precise, and his acting of the part was a perfect blend of the sinister and comical. He dominated nearly every scene in which he appeared, and the audience roared approval at the final curtain call.

The renowned mezzo-soprano Jill Grove made her Pittsburgh Opera debut as Baba the Turk, the bearded lady from the fair, and poured out the difficult music of the part in rich, dark-hued tones that were quite impressive. She acted the part with a comedic flair and force that made her bizarre appearance almost enchanting. She more than lived up to the expectations her reputation led one to expect.

The lovely and talented soprano Layla Claire returned to Pittsburgh Opera for the first time in several years, as Anne Trulove, a role she sang at the Metropolitan Opera last spring. She has a powerful and pure voice, and made an exquisite picture as the deserted but brave fiancée of the “Rake,” Tom. In the garden scene of the first act, she delivered her tremendously difficult aria with nearly flawless dexterity, although the climactic high C was a bit strident and less than musical in quality. She more than atoned in subsequent scenes, and made a decidedly favorable impression on the audience.

Financially ruined by investments in a machine Nick Shadow has conned him into believing can turn stones into bread, Tom’s possessions are put up for auction by Sellem (Keith Jameson).
Financially ruined by investments in a machine Nick Shadow has conned him into believing can turn stones into bread, Tom’s possessions are put up for auction by Sellem (Keith Jameson).

Tenor Alek Shrader made his Pittsburgh Opera debut as Tom Rakewell. His vocalization was somewhat uneven throughout, with an almost baritone quality at the outset, then a light and lyrical sound, then somewhere in the middle, to the point where it nearly sounded like several different tenors were appearing in the role. He gave the impression that the majority of his study of the part has been concentrated on the third, final act, where he was at his best. He sang well on several other occasions in the somewhat thankless role, sometimes lacking in volume, although this in fairness may have been in keeping with the weak-natured character he was portraying. In action, too, he was seen at his best in the closing scenes of the opera.

Laurel Semerdjian, who has contributed such a wealth of excellent singing and acting to the company’s 2015-’16 season, is making her final appearances here (for the time being, hopefully) in this production, and lent her immense talent to the small role of Mother Goose, the colorfully named brothel proprietress. She sang the few measures allotted to the part with her customary velvety tones, and acted the role with an eye-popping bawdiness that would have been unthinkable at the opera’s 1951 premiere.

 Faithful to the end, Anne Trulove (Layla Claire) comforts Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader) in the Bedlam insane asylum.
Faithful to the end, Anne Trulove (Layla Claire) comforts Tom Rakewell (Alek Shrader) in the Bedlam insane asylum.

Wei Wu, also making his first appearance with the company, sang the bass role of Trulove, Anne’s justifiably concerned father. Another newcomer, tenor Keith Jameson, appeared as Sellem, the auctioneer who takes matters in hand once the devious Nick Shadow has reduced Tom Rakewell to financial ruin. He was comical in appearance and action, and sang well. Matthew Scollin, the ever-reliable, sang the small role of the “Keeper of the Madhouse.”

The production as a whole is the finest of this season’s offerings. It is a must-see, and will be repeated on May 3, 6 and 8. For full production, cast and ticket information, and a complete synopsis of the opera, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for two complimentary press tickets.

The “Artistic Team” for The Rake’s Progress

Antony Walker, Conductor; Roy Rallo, Stage Director; David Hockney, Set and Costume Designer; Cindy Limauro, Lighting Designer; James Geier, Wig & Make-up Designer; Mark Trawka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist; Allen Perriello, Guest Coach/First Pianist; Jennifer Williams, Assistant Director; Cindy Knight, Stage Manager.

Photography: David Bachman.