Bargaining with the Devil
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When revolutionary 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky teamed with co-librettists W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman to write "The Rake's Progress" in 1951, he was finally moving past his "neoclassic" period. For a composer who forever changed the course of music with radical works like "The Rite of Spring," creating an opera based on an 18th-century model might have seemed baffling, but Stravinsky reused tradition to move forward in his own transformative way.
The modernist score with a Mozartian slant - with some bel canto thrown in - has always been esteemed by aficionados, but a little harder to love for the average operagoer. Too many productions cast a cynical eye on what is actually a surprisingly heartfelt little morality play. The Merola Opera Program presented "The Rake's Progress" recently as the second of two fully staged productions in the Summer 2018 season at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. With typical energy and enthusiasm, the youthful crew got it just right, finding genuine pathos and human emotion in the highly stylized tale.
Based on eight engravings by British artist and satirist William Hogarth, the story charts the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, a lazy and reckless young heir who squanders his life and fortune to end up in the Bedlam insane asylum. Throughout his descent into debauchery, one woman remains steadfast in her love.
As the aptly named Anne Trulove, Meigui Zhang (Chengdu, Sichuan, China) came close to stealing the show with her rich and pure, almost vibrato-less soprano. Stravinsky would have approved of her clear and unfussy line. Her subtly earnest portrayal combined tonal accuracy with emotion.
As her wayward love Tom, tenor Christopher Oglesby (Woodstock, GA) could match her for wonderfully exact pitch, a crucial requirement in such seemingly plain but complicated music. He has a nicely rounded tone with a bright edge that added dimension to his interpretation. By the time Oglesby sang his final piteous aria in the loony bin, he had fully captured the audience's sympathy.
Baritone Jacob Scharfman (Boston, MA), as the mysteriously diabolical Nick Shadow, enabler of Tom's worst instincts, hovered about the action with suitably arch humor. His steady and controlled sound was nicely nuanced and always audible.
As Baba the Turk, the famous bearded lady caught in the wake of Tom's wild spree, mezzo-soprano Anne Maguire (Washougal, WA) managed an endearing performance that displayed an imposing range and jolly sense of humor.
Other parts were ably enacted by sensuous mezzo-soprano Alexandra Urquiola (Bergenfield, NJ) as the whorehouse madam Mother Goose; bass-baritone Ted Allen Pickell (El Dorado Hills, CA) as Anne's understanding father; and tenor Addison Marlor (Salt Lake City, UT) as the hilariously over-the-top auctioneer Sellem. Keeper of the Madhouse, bass-baritone Andrew Moore (Point Pleasant, NJ) made an immediate impression in his brief but effective appearance.
The Chorus of 2018 Merolini enjoyed a boisterous field day as denizens of the brothels and byways of 18th-century London. Looking great in Christine Crook's cleverly detailed costume design, they sounded remarkably full. As a handsome and functional backdrop, Donald Eastman's white-on-white scenic design, well-lit by Eric Watkins, matched the clear direction by Robin Guarino.
Guarino's mostly understated references (who could have resisted just a touch of Fosse in Mother Goose's crib?) moved the cast simply throughout the action. Her sensibly modest approach proved more satisfying than memories of other bigger, overproduced versions.
Conductor Mark Morash (Merola 1987) coaxed a luxurious sound from the orchestra, appreciably richer than other, more chamber-like readings. It helped the angular melodies elegantly resonate. Highly polished productions from the Merola Program are expected. Even by those standards, this "Rake's Progress" was exceptional.
The Merola Grand Finale of the 61st season takes place on Sat., Aug. 18, 7:30 p.m. at the War Memorial Opera House. More info: www.merola.org