Review: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part IV -“The Rake’s Progress”, December 9, 2007

In this four-part series I have identified several major changes in the direction of the San Francisco Opera, under the new leadership of David Gockley. The series has sought to put four operas, each of which I felt was presented in exemplary performances in Fall of 2007, into a wider perspective. The three previous parts of this series contained performance reviews and essays regarding Glass’ “Appomattox”, and Puccini’s “La Rondine” and “Madama Butterfly”. The final review and essay relates to Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”.

The San Francisco Opera owns an important production of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” designed by artist David Hockney (and it owns Hockney productions of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Puccini’s “Turandot” as well.) Even so, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley consented to co-sponsor a new time-shifted production of Stravinsky’s mid-20th century semi-comic work, in collaboration with the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, the Opera de Lyon, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and Teatro Real Madrid.

In the past, I have raised the issue of whether “The Rake’s Progress” would ever achieve widespread popularity among the opera-going public. (See The Devil’s Details Part I – The Cox-Hockney ‘Rake’s Progress’ discussing the famous Glyndebourne production that later came to be owned by the San Francisco Opera.)

Certainly, “Rake’s Progress” is one of the operas from the  mid-20th century that is still performed regularly. Even so, I suspect some opera managements have mounted it because they wish, for the sake of balance, to have a mid-20th century work in their repertory, rather than because their audiences are demanding the opera’s revival.

Although I reconfirm a continuing degree of skepticism about the opera’s plot, I am unreservedly enthusiastic about the production seen in San Francisco. Directed by Quebec’s Robert Lepage and by Sybille Wilson, the mostly Quebecois technical support team included Lighting Designer Etienne Boucher, Costume Designer Francois Barbeau, and Video Designer Boris Firquet. Michael Keegan-Dolan and Rachel Poirier were the choreographers.

Obviously, Lepage and his colleagues believe that if the opera’s storyline were moved closer to us in time, we might better get the ideas that librettists W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman set forth. Perhaps, if  the incidents, inspired by engravings about Hogarth’s London, that Auden and Kallman wove together to make the opera’s plot, were replaced with iconic images from our more recent cultural history taught us by the Hollywood film industry  – oil wildcatting, Nevada style bordellos, red carpet movie premieres and Hollywoodish rooftop swimming pools – we might better understand the story’s moral.

That, of course, assumes there is a moral beyond the Poor Richard’s Almanac type of platitude that idleness creates mischief. To me Nick seems a pale shadow of the larger than life archfiends of 19th century grand opera, from Bertram in Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable” through Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust” and the title role in Boito’s “Mefistofele”.

Perhaps, by 1951, the year of its Venetian world premiere, the devil’s bargain Nick offers has become a bit too generous. Here is your choice: If you choose to stay with the Anne Trulove types, you can work as an accountant without, presumably (it is not made explicit) any netherworldly obligations.

Alternatively, if you take Nick’s bargain, without doing any work, you can become very rich and very famous and satiated with all earthly pleasures for periods of time. At other times you will be down on your luck. Then, if you play your cards right, you will be afflicted by a madness that takes away all memory, but you also are freed from eternal servitude.

I suspect that lots of people would turn down Nick’s offer, but many other people would take the deal.

I offer a moral of my own. If we can’t take the story of “The Rake’s Progress” seriously, at least present it as a helluva show! And that’s what Team Quebecois provided.

Notes on the Performance

The opera is shifted from Hogarth’s London to a never never land reminding one of East Texas during the Spindletop era of oil wildcatting that George Stevens explored in his cinema classic “Giant”. (A picture of James Dean on the set of the “Giant” was the cover image for the opera program.)

The opera’s four principals were played by William Burden (Tom Rakewell), Laura Aikin (Anne Trulove), Nick Shadow (James Morris) and Denyce Graves (Baba the Turk). Donald Runnicles conducted the production for its six San Francisco performances.

Burden’s Tom, clad in a red-checkered shirt, Levi pants and jacket, sits with Aikin’s Anne Truelove on a red blanket on the bare stage floor.

[Below: Tom Rakewell (William Burden) and Anne Trulove (Linda Aikin) swear eternal love; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

A pumpjack, the oil-drilling machine that reminds people of grasshoppers or nodding donkeys, is the main feature of the landscape. Anne’s father Truelove (Kevin Langan) is dressed like we imagine a successful Texas oilman should look.

[Below: William Burden is Tom Rakewell; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Trulove is apprehensive about his daughter marrying a ne’er-do-well and makes it clear he wants Tom to take a very unappealing job that he has arranged. Tom, when alone, states his wish that he had money, which causes an oil-soaked Nick Shadow (James Morris) to emerge from the depths from which the oil is being drilled, with news of an inheritance that comes with strings attached. When Shadow and Rakewell agree on the contract (not one likely to survive in a California court), lightning flashes in the East Texas sky. The Progress of a Rake begins.

Then the long bar of a Wild West saloon rises from the floor. A western is being filmed and Shadow is the cameraman. The saloon drops into the ground and we are backstage where Mother Goose (Catherine Cook) and Tom, now dressed in a brown and cream-white Western outfit with dual holster and revolvers, are reading their scripts. The rowdy boys and whores sing, while Nick the camera man is in the spotlight.

[The whores (played members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus) entertain at the Wild West saloon; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Tom sings the soliloquy Love, too frequently betrayed after which Mother Goose, sitting with Tom on a red heart-shaped mattress, crawls on top of him and they completely disappear into the mattress.

[Nick Shadow (James Morris), behind the camera, films the happenings of the boudoir of Mother Goose (Catherine Cook); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Departing from the lonely East Texas spaces that surround oilmen’s mansions, Anne determines to locate Tom. We next see Tom as a Hollywood star, sitting in stage chairs outside his Airstream-like trailer. Partially clad in the costume for a baroque drama, he is wearing iridescent blue pants, a blue and gold vest and gold-tasseled blue shoes.

Tom obviously is supplied all the booze and cocaine he desires. Shadow, in a tan and beige sportcoat, is an agent who will not settle for the traditional ten percent of the star’s earnings.

[Below: James Morris is Nick Shadow; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Nick provides a poster of Baba the Turk, whom he promotes as the future wife to a less than enthusiastic Tom, who, though presumably not requiring a beard, agrees to marry her anyway.

Next blinding headlights of a small red convertible automobile and projections of streets whizzing by, remind us that Anne, wearing a yellow overcoat, is in pursuit of her betrothed. Searchlights mark the gala premiere showing of Tom Rakewell and Baba the Turk in “A Nick Shadow Motion Picture”.

[Below: Tom Rakewell (William Burden) has a discouraging word for Anne Trulove (Laura Aikin); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

As Tom and Anne sing their breakup duet, the crowd, whom the bobbies are trying to restrain, pushes forward to try and overhear them.

The production’s most famous image is Tom and Baba’s seaview terrace, complete with swimming pool and diving board. The couple sits at a patio table under a breach umbrella, Tom reading the Hollywood newspaper,Variety. Baba is in a peach swimsuit. Their veranda becomes the scene for an “A-List” cocktail party.

[Below: Denyce Graves is Baba the Turk; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Tom is convinced by Nick Shadow to invest all of his money in a scheme so ludicrous that it makes the wild speculation in the stock of a funicular railroad that destroys the wealth of most of the characters in Berg’s “Lulu” seem like conservative money management. Once bankrupted, all of Tom’s and Baba’s possessions (at one point including Baba herself)  are sold in the most bizarre of auctions.

[Below: an auction is held at the former dwellings of Tom Rakewell and Baba the Turk; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The graveyard called for by Auden, Kallman and Stravinsky, is, in this production, a junkyard for neon signs. Nick Shadow plays the game for Tom’s soul.

[Below: Nick Shadow (James Morris, standing) pursues the soul of Tom Rakewell (William Burden); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

When Tom wins, all of the neon lights turn on and glitter brightly. An unintended consequence of Tom’s victory is that Shadow afflicts him with total madness. The scene is transformed into a stark white mental ward. The multimedia aspects of the production are especially prominent in this scene, whose television images include alarm clock hands, and optical nerves.

Convinced that Tom is beyond all hope, Anne kisses him goodbye and gets on with her life.

[Below: Anne Trulove (Laura Aikin) bids farewell to Tom Rakewell (William Burden); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph; courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The Bigger Picture

The Quebecois “Rake” is a brilliant tour de force, and San Francisco Opera audiences were fortunate to be one of the cities that had invested in the production. More on that investment below.

But first the message of the production. I think the true value of the Lepage approach to the “Rake” is that, in this satire on our recent past, contemporary audiences indeed might distill more from the opera than if it is presented as a commentary on Georgian London.

After all, every image that Lepage chooses for his production, from the East Texas oil industry, to the Hollywood film industry – even institutions that house the mentally ill (a bit less potent in contemporary society than oilmen and filmmakers) – can be said to be still with us and having some impact and influence on the course of our lives.

I think, however, that the opera house is a very inefficient place to try to do any significant moral instruction. More significant to me is a “nuts and bolts” fact about this presentation of Stravinsky’s work – that opera companies in several cities decided to share costs to permit a bravura concept in presenting this opera to come into being.

Similarly, the 2008 San Francisco Opera production of “L’Elisir d’Amore” was one whose production costs were shared by several companies. There have been multilateral productions in the past, but I predict, in these economically challenging times for artistic endeavors, that more will take place. Many productions will be planned for a grand tour from the very beginning.

But productions owned by a half a dozen companies are only one way that operas will find their audiences. The Gockley administration has taken an eclectic approach to productions.

Some are revivals of productions owned by the San Francisco Opera, such as the lavish 1980 Nicolas Joel-Douglas Schmidt production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”. Unfortunately,  “Samson” is one of the few survivors from the series of major new productions that former General Director Kurt Herbert Adler commissioned in the 1970s, with the expectation that they would last for decades.

[The fact that so many of these very expensive productions are apparently missing and presumed destroyed (e.g., the 1976 Nikolaus Lehnhoff/Joerg Zimmerman production of Richard Strauss’ “Frau ohne Schatten”, the 1977 John Conklin production of  Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” (from which at least the costumes survived) and the 1979 Zack Brown production of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”) is a recurring theme of this website.]

On a more positive note, there seems to be one theme that has resonated throughout the post-Adler general directorships in San Francisco – that David Hockney’s work is sacrosanct. Apparently, no opera administrator (at least those in California) would destroy a David Hockney production. Unlike apparently anything else designed for the operatic stage, a Hockney production can be considered a work of art.

Therefore, no one, so far, has suggested throwing away the three Hockney productions that San Francisco Opera owns (and continues to rent out): those for “Rake’s Progress (1982)”, Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (1987) and for Puccini’s “Turandot”.

One notes that Gockley did not use either the Hockney “Rake” nor the “Flute” when reviving these two works in Fall 2007. Yet, he did not destroy those productions to justify mounting the Lepage “Rake’s Progress” or the Scarfe “Magic Flute”.

Moreover, Gockley rented Hockney’s colorful production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” from Los Angeles Opera in Fall 2006 (that was revived earlier this year in Los Angeles and will be seen at Lyric Opera of Chicago in early 2009). Meanwhile the San Francisco Hockney “Flute” made the Houston Grand Opera’s 2008-09 season.

Unfortunately, if Hockney productions indeed have achieved the status of objets d’art, the idea of regarding other productions similarly is still not widespread. This website, even before the end of 2008, will begin a series on the productions of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Yet, previous administrations of San Francisco Opera were responsible for the destruction of Ponnelle’s San Francisco productions of Wagner’s “Fliegende Hollaender”, Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and “Otello”, Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” and Bizet’s “Carmen”, among others.

(Those who recall seeing the Ponnelle “Carmen” in San Francisco in 2001 and 2006 were seeing a downsized version of it that S. F. Opera had to buy from Zurich Opera, because San Francisco’s 1981 production, which actually fit the War Memorial Opera House’s stage, had been thrown away.)

Fortunately, four Ponnelle productions designed for San Francisco Opera remain – for Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (1969), for Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (1976), for Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (1976) and for Verdi’s “Falstaff” (1985). Additionally, at least one other Ponnelle San Francisco Opera production continues to exist, for Puccini’s “Tosca” (1972), because the San Diego Opera wisely purchased it (and will revive it next month for the Puccini 150th birthday celebrations).

Production sets are, one admits, bulky and expensive to warehouse, and there well could be other reasons why directors will resist considering older productions in their possession as world art treasures for which they are curators. (Some managements, one might imagine, are invested in the idea of a new production, and it is inconvenient that an old production of the same opera sits in storage).

Apparently, during the 1990s and early part of this century, San Francisco Opera and other opera houses throughout the world, found reasons to destroy older productions. The Gockley administration has already come across circumstances where these past destructive acts limit current options.

The San Francisco 2006 Fall season opened with a hastily secured old production of “Ballo”, far inferior to what had been discarded by Gockley’s predecessor. The financial problems of the Washington National Opera impact San Francisco Opera, because the two companies were sharing the production costs of a new production of Wagner’s “Goetterdaemmerung” to complete the “American Ring”.

The WNO shortfall creates urgent difficulties on the opposite Coast because of the San Francisco Opera commitment to conductor and casts to produce a complete “Ring” in its 2010-2011 season. The missing parts of the “Ring” could have been finessed, if the Nikolaus Lehnhoff/John Conklin “Ring” were still available for use.

The famous stories of this or that impresario taking over a European opera house and destroying all the existing sets made lively discussion in the expansive 1990s. Yes, of course, it means that new minds will be called upon to look upon old operas in a new light. But, what some see as destructiveness that advances creativity, can also be seen as destruction of a piece of the world’s artistic heritage.

David Gockley’s remaking of San Francisco Opera, salutary in so many ways, is a harder job because he has a smaller inventory of fine productions to build upon than should have been his inheritance on taking the job. There will be more to say on this issue here in future months.

See also: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I: Glass’ “Appomattox” – October 14, 2007

and: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part II: Gheorghiu and “Rondine” – November 25, 2007

and: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007