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Clouds, shadows, and other hazy mirrors of the soul have long led protagonists into temptation in order to deliver audiences from evil. “Whenever we see someone who is a lover of bad business,” Aristophanes’ Clouds explained to the ancient Athenians, “we lead him on deeper and deeper into the badness, until he learns to fear the gods.” In The Rake’s Progress, a classical satire tailor-made for its composer, the master neoclassicist Stravinsky (and based on a series of engravings by William Hogarth), seductively sinister Nick Shadow leads young Tom Rakewell (performed with a compassionate vocal styling by tenor Paul Appleby) from poverty to wealth and from garden-variety heterosexuality into the arms of a bearded lady. But despite the libretto’s nursery rhyme style and “don’t be lazy” moral trotted out at the end, the lesson remains unclear.
The Metropolitan Opera last remounted Jonathan Miller’s 1997 production in 2003. Peter J. Davidson’s thoughtful and minimal sets paired with Jennifer Tipton’s exquisite lighting create an experience as rich visually as it is musically. Views of the city evoke Charles Sheeler’s mechanical sublime, which eventually dissolves, as the lights in an insane asylum gradually fade out during the final scene.
The story begins in the country: two tall, sky-blue panels dotted with photorealistic clouds create a feeling of limitless open space, but the trees are growing inside the house, an ingenious illustration of the indolent Tom Rakewell’s anxiety at the prospect of getting a job in the city. Davidson’s sets frequently highlight the psychology of the scenes in this sort of subtly effective, visual way. Another example: the blood red brothel where Tom begins his journey into the bowels of urban narcissism, and the clinically tan asylum where the sad story ends are structurally identical; both sets vanish into a door-lined hallway that symbolizes imprisonment.
Baritone Gerald Finley is charmingly seductive as Nick Shadow, an odd hybrid of Aristophanes’ Clouds (who tempt in order to teach) and the Mephistophelean devil (who tempts in order to destroy) who lures Tom away from the angelic Anne Trulove (Layla Clairesop) by bribing him with money. Nick convinces Tom to marry bearded lady Baba the Turk (sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe with enough vocal power to shatter plates and glasses) by using a Kantian argument against biological determinism that librettists W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman reportedly concocted to tease the unhip, homophobic Stravinsky. Whatever its origin, Shadow’s reasoning transcends the average devil’s money-and-power temptations, and it hooks Tom up with someone who, although self-absorbed, at least owns her self-absorption and can decorate their apartment like Kelly Wearstler.
The climactic graveyard scene, in which Nick at last demands his wages, throws a bit of light on this dandy devil’s dark background. The set design brilliantly echoes this partial exposure of character by cutting away the bottom part of the panels that represent the night sky, revealing scaffolding. In the end, Nick remains a shadowy character. Why is it that, right when he seems to have Tom in his clutches, he proposes a game of chance that will allow Tom to escape? And why is Anne’s voice, coming from offstage, but not her body, able to save Tom’s soul, but not his sanity? We are still chewing on these questions long after the sets disappear and the black curtain closes.
In the end, perhaps Baba the Turk’s cheerful cynicism comes out sounding smartest —especially in money-crazed Manhattan: “My dear,” she says to Anne as she exits, “a gifted lady never need have fear. I shall go back and grace the stage, where manner rules and wealth attends.”
The Rake’s Progress continues at the Metropolitan Opera (Lincoln Center, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through May 9.