The Rake’s Progress shows no sympathy for the devil

Arts & Entertainment/Theatre by

Opera McGill’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, an opera based on a series of 18th century satirical etchings by William Hogarth, combined intricate costumes and sets with raw musical talent – and the result was enough to convert any doubting opera-goer into a full-fledged fan.

Directed by David Lefkowich, the opera depicted young Tom Rakewell’s descent from shallowness and recklessness to despair and corruption when he unknowingly befriends the devil. In the beginning, Rakewell (played by Frank Mutya) was a daydreamer smitten with Anne Trulove (Véronique Coutu). The two seemed hopelessly in love, but were weighed down by Trulove’s father’s disapproval of Rakewell’s laziness. The arrival of stranger Nick Shadow (Philippe Sly) spun the story in a new direction when he unexpectedly informed Rakewell of his recent inheritance and suggested a trip to London to claim it. As the lovers parted ways, Shadow led Rakewell into an adventurous life of brothels, squandering money, and discovering the tragic neglect of true love.

Stravinsky is known for paying tribute to musical masterminds like Bach and Tchaikovsky, and in The Rake’s Progress he paid particular homage to Mozart. The acclaimed conductor and composer Julian Wachner brought his international experience to the theatre as the Principal Conductor of Opera McGill, and led the McGill Symphony Orchestra in a performance that paralleled the rising and falling action of the story, underscoring moments of both comedy and tragedy with music.

While the opera’s first few scenes were meant to contain little action, the lack of energy distanced the audience from the story, making it difficult to lose yourself in the experience. Fortunately, the energy level increased as the show went on, engaging the audience more and more with each scene.

Sly stole the show with an outstanding performance in his portrayal of Shadow, who leads Rakewell through his heroic downfall. Shadow acted as a puppet master, constantly convincing Tom to plunge deeper into immoral descent. A standout scene in act two involved Shadow toying with Rakewell’s opportunity for freedom in the song “Never Was I Saner,” to which both the audience and Tom fell victim. Coutu captured Trulove’s innocence and virtue in song, with her beautiful rendition of “No Word From Tom,” one of the opera’s famous solos.

The extent of Shadow’s influence over Rakewell was portrayed through the two character’s duets, the most impressive being the scene when Shadow convinced Rakewell to wager his soul in a game of cards. The stunning final scene featured chorus members dressed as psychiatric patients, with eerie lighting and disturbing choreography. The dark story had a hint of optimism – that beauty lies in the final realization of what truly matters, regardless of how long it takes to get there.

Overall it was a combination of musical talent and staged ability that, regardless of the extent of your previous opera experience, could not go unappreciated. Although there were occasional moments of voice clash – detectable during songs in which the lead vocalists were set to harmonize in unison – leaving some drowned out by others in both sound and articulation, overall there were few weaknesses in the vocal performances. The performance made tasteful use of humour and wit through costume design and choreographic accents, best seen in the entertaining brothel scene. The costumes were intricate and beautiful, while the characters came alive through the collective group dynamics of back and forth momentum. The clever integration of set mobility and adaptions of a variety of basic backgrounds provided a feeling of progression from one scene to the next. Precise lighting techniques are exemplified in scenes like the eerie depiction of the psychiatric hospital, making use of back lighting and revealing silhouettes of fidgety patients to perfect the mood.

Stravinsky created a graphic tale of morality, with delightful comedic relief and tragedy set in parallel from start to finish, and the Opera McGill production held true to his vision.