Thursday, May 31, 2012

Progressing, Rakishly

The new production of The Rake's Progress at the Frankfurt Opera is very good, the level of music-making superb.  The Rakewell/Shadow team of Paul Appleby and Simon Bailey just plain owns the wager scene in Act III, and the conductor, Constantinos Carydis, kept the pace just right, giving the evening a musical and dramatic shape that put the required focus to the two big arias that really count, Anne's (Brenda Rae) and Tom's, and that amazing wager scene, using an appropriately scaled-down orchestra that reflected well on the Frankfurter Opera and Museum orchestra's ease with both earlier and contemporary repertoire.  The decision to use the composer's authorized alternative of a piano instead of the preferred (mid-20th century "modern") harpsichord for the recitative accompaniment might be argued with, but with the aging of the HIP that's increasingly ambiguous territory.  The production was sharp, the sets modest, and presented a compellingly twisted solution to the problem of Baba the Turk's (Paula Murrihy) unique physique. (Cue song: That was no bearded lady I saw you with last night, that was my wife!)

But that's beginning to sound too much like a review, which I don't do. Let me note, instead, something about the formal strengths of The Rake as a single and tightly wound piece of music.  It progresses, in its own perversely not-quite-tonal rakishness, from the bucolic plausibility of the opening scene through the ever-expanding range of stylistic references in each set-piece, gradually accumulating snippits and swathes of melodic material and accompanying figuration, juxtaposed end-to-end and superimposed in a steady simulacrum of music you almost know, or think you might have known (the neo-classic label is never quite accurate here: there's as much suggestive of Tchaikovsky and French operetta here as of Mozart, despite the composer's own oft-stated point of departure in Cosi fan tutte (Cosi is present, of course, but mainly in the writing for woodwinds*)), but really creating an illusion space of fictive progression until that shockingly subdued and reflective climatic moment of the opera, which is not vocal, but instrumental, the prelude to the wager scene: music for strings (which happens, structurally, in a place just about equivalent to the cello solo in Don Carlo(s)) which looks something like old viol music on paper, but doesn't sound like anything other than itself, music which is moody and makes a move, progressing from an initial Bb minorish sonority to a cadential F majorish but what passes between, possibly the most unrelentingly dissonant music of the evening but also the most ravishingly tragic, doesn't really make sense, at least not in terms of any music we really do know. This is a strong indication to me that Stravinsky has succeeded, through the saturation effect of so much simulacra, in suspending our disbeliefs in improbable successions of tones,** which (as far as I'm concerned) is exactly what an opera — and opera, if anything, has to be about the suspension of disbeliefs — ought to do with tones.

The technique here is cumulative and progressive. To make that work the accretion of new elements has to be paced by some constant function.  I suspect that Stravinsky's text setting, with its improbable English diction, an unnatural and sometimes near-random assignment of rhythm and stress, actually does a good part of the work of moving things forward, with the propulsive effect of language constantly off-kilter in the recitatives and forming paradoxically lyrical but fragmented lines in the arias which float over any regularities in the accompaniments. Another strong cumulative and progressive structural element is a set of parallel lists: the stages in the Nick's corruption of Tom, the series of questions asked by Mother Goose and the chorus, and then the series of items in Selim's auction and, finally, the series of guesses in the wager scene.  Stravinsky responded compositionally to these parallelisms by, essentially, composing over them, avoiding the obvious strophic treatment, letting the text and plot hold together so the music can keep progressing, rakishly.    

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*  In particular, isn't the writing for bassoon throughout fantastic? And those two extended trumpet solos...!
** Perhaps the greatest utility to Stravinsky, in his later invention and adoption of the "vertical" serial technique, is that he had a ready reserve of a variety of chords with surprising doublings (and treblings and morelings), whose connections, that is, progressions (in a functional sense) were effectively obscured. 

1 comment:

Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

Just got the score a week ago.Wish i could have seen this production~