By Igor Stravinsky
Presented by West Bay Opera
At the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA; 650-424-9999
Conducted by Mary Chun
Directed by Jonathon Field

Reviewed by Judy Richter

The Faustian legend, in which someone sells his soul to the devil to fulfill a wish, has inspired numerous permutations, some with Faust in the title, others as far afield as the Broadway musical "Damn Yankees." Composer Igor Stravinsky, aided by librettists W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, created his own Faustian tale in "The Rake's Progress," a 1951 work that was initially inspired by a series of engravings by 18th century artist William Hogarth.

In the "Rake's Progress" production first designed for the San Francisco Opera's 1982 season,artist David Hockney used the Hogarth drawings as the basis for his sets and costumes. West Bay Opera set designer Jean-François Revon and costume designer Richard W. Battle bring the opera into the 20th century, a period that serves this timeless tale just fine.

The three-act opera tells the story of Tom Rakewell (tenor Gerald Seminatore), a young country man who dreams of wealth but who isn't particularly interested in working for it. Just as he wishes that he were rich, a stranger approaches and tells Tom that an uncle he never knew has died and left him a fortune. The stranger, Nick Shadow (baritone Kirk Eichelberger), offers to accompany him to London to sign the necessary papers. Shadow tells Tom he'll collect his wages a year and a day later. Tom bids a fond farewell to his beloved Anne Trulove (soprano Rhoslyn Jones) and her father, Trulove (bass-baritone Douglas Nagel).

Once they get to London, Tom falls into dissolution, cavorting at a brothel presided over by Mother Goose (mezzo-soprano Ariela Morgenstern) and marrying a circus freak, Baba the Turk (mezzo-soprano Carla López-Speziale), mainly for her money. After a year and a day, Shadow tries to exact his wages, Tom's life, but Tom wins a reprieve, only to be condemned to madness True to her name, Anne has tried to save Tom, but in the end, all she can do is comfort him.

Director Jonathon Field and music director Mary Chun have assembled a more than credible cast of professional singers for this production. Despite a few problems with high notes on opening night, Seminatore sings well as Tom, a demanding vocal role. He also fulfills the role's dramatic demands as Tom evolves from smug dweeb, complete with buttoned-up cardigan sweater and dorky hair; to disillusioned sophisticate, much better dressed and coiffed; to broken, disheveled man.

Jones brings a powerful voice to Anne's equally demanding role. She needs better control on her high notes, but she's clearly someone to watch. The San Francisco Opera must agree, for Jones is an Adler Fellow, the highest level of its prestigious Merola Opera training program. She also acts well, using her expressive face to show such reactions as immediate distrust of Shadow.

Portraying Shadow, the tall, commanding Eichelberger displays just the right level of charm with sinister undertones. He's also a powerful singer, as is Nagel as the kindly, concerned Trulove.

López-Speziale has excellent vocal control as Baba the Turk. The libretto says Baba has a full beard, which she usually hides behind a veil, but this Baba has only a Clark Gable-like mustache. The WBO production justifies the change by calling her a hermaphrodite in the program. When the crowd greeting her at Tom's house after their marriage demands that she show herself, she turns her back to the audience and apparently flashes the crowd. The libretto says she removes her veil, but this Baba has already done so. It's an interesting concept, but it doesn't work as well as a beard.

Completing the competent cast are tenor Michael Mendelsohn as the auctioneer and baritone Richard Bogart as an orderly at Bedlam. The lighting is by Chad Bonaker.

The orchestra's brass players had a few shaky moments in the overture but recovered quickly. The chorus sings well enough, but the women sometimes need to sing out more. Overall, the chorus, and indeed the entire production, needs more energy. Hence, it's difficult to make an emotional connection to the characters.

In something of a departure for WBO, this production is not double-cast. That's unfortunate, for "The Rake's Progress" makes strong vocal demands on the principals. Seminatore seemed to tire toward the end of opening night, leading one to wonder how he and his colleagues would fare at the next day's matinee and the two consecutive evenings the following weekend.

For more information, see the West Bay Opera home page.

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1 Jun 2006