The Western is back. Look at just a few of the films in theaters recently -- 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men. The New York Times Sunday Magazine recently dedicated an entire issue to the Western and its relevance in contemporary society. So the timing couldn't be better for San Francisco Opera's new production of Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, which opens with a pair of young lovers sitting on a red blanket under a wide open sky, an oil rig churning silently behind them. "Texas!" whispered a man sitting behind me with a laugh. "They're in Texas!"
That pleasure of recognition continued throughout the evening as the audience figured out how the story had been updated to reflect modern ideas about innocence and decadence. Stravinsky was inspired to write the opera after seeing a series of engravings by the eighteenth-century artist William Hogarth. Using Hogarth's work as a foundation, the poet W. H. Auden and his collaborator Chester Kallman crafted a beautiful and literary libretto that traces the progress of a young Englishman, newly rich, who abandons his faithful love, squanders his money on loose living in London, and ends in an insane asylum.
In this production, the young English gentleman is a naive cowboy and London is Los Angeles, but the themes of virtue and corruption remain. The sweethearts on the red blanket are Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove (as in most allegories, their names reflect their defining characteristics). Their love duet is interrupted by Nick Shadow, the devil in disguise, who climbs out of the oil rig to tell Tom that he has inherited great wealth. Tom unwittingly makes a bargain with this devil and they set off for the city. As Nick announces at the close of the first scene: "The progress of a rake begins!"
While the original Tom was seduced by prostitutes and gambling in London, this production charts his moral decline by sending him to -- where else? -- Hollywood. Nick re-appears as a film director who casts Tom in a Western movie. On the saloon set, Tom quickly succumbs to the pleasures of wealth and fame, including fawning actresses and cocaine. Abandoning Anne, Tom follows Nick's advice and marries the bearded lady Baba the Turk, a glamorous and demanding movie star (a circus performer in the original). After Tom loses all his money in a failed business scheme, Nick reveals his true nature and challenges Tom to wager his soul in a game of cards. Tom wins the game by calling on the purity of Anne's love, but Nick takes his final revenge by claiming Tom's sanity. In the last scene, set in an antiseptic asylum, Tom imagines that he is Adonis and Anne is Venus. Anne appears briefly and comforts him, but once she leaves he is distraught, medicated by the doctors, and appears to die. The progress of a rake is complete.
Using characters and images familiar from classic Hollywood films, this production stays true to the themes of the opera while amusing and engaging the audience. But what really sets this evening apart is the music. Excellent performances from the orchestra, chorus, and lead singers illuminate Stravinsky's music so that the pleasures and patterns of his melodies and the interplay between voices and orchestra are crystal clear. Stravinsky wrote The Rake's Progress late in his career (premiere in 1951) in a neoclassical style, meaning that he used classical musical forms, yet updated them with modern composition techniques including rhythmic experimentation and use of dissonance. While you probably won't leave the opera humming any of the tunes, this is a wonderful production for opera lovers and for people who are beginning their own "progress" toward understanding and enjoying 20th century opera.
This production travels from Texas to Tinseltown, with a stop in Vegas along the way. But it ends in the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, with the house lights turned on and the main characters instructing the audience in the supposed moral of the story: "For idle hands/ And hearts and minds/ The Devil finds/ A work to do,/ A work, dear sir, fair madam,/ For you and you." Like Tom, many of us have traveled west to California in search of something new (including Stravinsky himself, who moved from Russia to Switzerland to France and eventually to Hollywood). Given the right circumstances and provocations, perhaps any of us could end up as a rake! For a new spin on this old story, saddle up and head to the opera. I reckon you'll be glad you did.
The Rake's Progress runs through December 9, 2007 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. For tickets and additional information: www.sfopera.org.