Vancouver Opera

The Rake's Progress by Igor Stravinsky, libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, conducted by Andreas Mitisek, directed by Michael Cavanagh


By J. H. Stape

A story of romance, hectic revelry, and mental derangement, Stravinsky's 1951 The Rake's Progress has had more performances--Puccini's works aside--than any other 20th century opera. Vancouver Opera's compelling staged, elegantly sung production demonstrates why on all counts, and will assuredly win this morality play set to music a host of new fans.

A co-production with Edmonton Opera, Ken MacDonald's stylish sets are dizzyingly lush. As one vivid stage picture fluidly segues into another, the scene changes literally force the audience to participate in the drama's topsy-turvy world. Michael Cavanagh's deft, even flawless, direction gives the evening a nervous energy that relentlessly teases out complex musical and dramatic values. The direction further compels involvement by extending into the house as chorus and singers at times invade the audience's space, making surprise raids on our sensibilities.

The swift scene changes, an array of brilliant lighting effects, and the lovingly detailed use of the chorus create a visual equivalent to Stravinsky's musically inventive palette. No less imaginative are the costumes, all in primary colours and mingling eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century dress modes to emphasize timeless universality in the same way the score does, drawing on--and at times sending up--the operatic and musical conventions of three centuries.

The strong cast assembled for this visually stunning production provides first-rate ensemble work. Benjamin Butterfield's winning acting and intelligent singing offer a rake by turns full of high jinks and then sadly conscious of his decline. Carefully creating a youthful effect in the opening scenes, Butterfield grows in tragic stature as he moves into plangent full voice in the evening's second half. The dark-honeyed bass and fine characterization of David Okerlund make Nick Shadow much more than the conventional stage villain, his powerful and sinuously seductive voice creating palpable menace. Jackalyn Short's silvery soprano convincingly renders Anne Trulove, cast adrift in the world's meshes yet stalwart in her commitment to her feckless lover. Her beautifully modulated first act aria and last act lullaby are the vocal highlights of an evening not lacking in fine performances.

The secondary roles are in equally good hands. Victoria Livengood's campy and show-stealing Baba is a toothsome confection: a minx-like girl-boy with a golden heart. Terry Hodges' Father Trulove is finely rendered, while Marcel van Neer plunges with gusto into the three roles of the brothel keeper Mother Goose (usually taken by a soprano), Sellem the Auctioneer, and the Keeper of the Madhouse, varying his tone and acting to telling effect. The demands on the chorus, which in turn plays Whores, Roaring Boys, Servants, Citizens, and Lunatics-a range not for the faint hearted--are triumphantly met by a troupe of singer-actors wholly engaged in the production and giving full value musically and dramatically. Maestro Andreas Mitisek's crisp rendition of the score assures tight collaboration between stage and pit at every point, whether abetting the action's feverish pitch or caressing out tensions in emotion-tinged scenes.

Operagoers constitutionally allergic to modern opera will find an instant cure for their malady in this effervescent production. Consistently excellent, mixing fun with high seriousness, and crowd-pleasing without dumbing down the score's challenges, the Vancouver Opera's second production of the season shows the company on top form. This winner deserves to rake in the crowds.

The Rake's Progress runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, at 8:00 p.m. sharp on 18, 21, 23, and 25 November. Tickets from $36.00 to $96.00 from all Ticketmaster outlets or by phone at (604) 280-3311. Rush tickets for students and seniors from $21.00 to $27.00 available one hour before curtain time on performance evenings at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Box Office.