Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Faraway, So Close

November 24, 2007

Laura Aikin as Anne Truelove and William Burden as Tom Rakewell
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

San Francisco Opera opened its last new production of the Fall, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Friday night and, with the exception of the last 20 minutes and the lack of a little vocal power in some areas, it is brilliant. This staging from Robert Lepage is a co-production that had its world premiere at La Monnaie earlier this year and will travel to Covent Garden in 2008 with a cast to include Charles Castronovo, Sally Matthews, and John Relyea under the baton of Thomas Adès. Lepage’s Rake owes less to the engravings of Hogarth and much more to the films of George Stevens, creating a world decidedly cinematic in tone with large Cinemascope-like projected backdrops that move and roll with the elements on stage. The opera's mise-en-scène is moved to the American West of the 20th Century in much the same way that John Doyle did in LA in February with his staging of Weil’s Mahagonny. Lepage’s Tom Rakewell becomes a James Dean-type innocent who leaves his West Texas home to be corrupted by the lure of Hollywood and Las Vegas complete with his turns as a cocaine-sniffing actor and jaded Beverly Hills husband. However, where Doyle’s adaptation trudged along despite high wattage star power, Lepage’s Rake flies by on the wings of an ever-expanding series of trompe l’oeil where inflatable camper vans spring from the stage, miniature houses arise from the backstage as if in the distance, and movie-set saloons rise instantly from the floor.

Denyce Graves as Baba the Turk and William Burden as Tom Rakewell
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007
All of these fun and grabbing visuals were accompanied by a musical and vocal performance that, while far from ideal, was not completely shabby either. If there were any issues with the cast, they were primarily about vocal power. The Tom Rakewell, William Burden, and Anne Truelove, Laura Aikin, frequently vanished in the orchestration unless they were downstage center and facing out to the audience. When they were, their tones were both quite splendid, but this was a hit and miss affair. The supporting roles were much stronger. As usual Denyce Graves all but steals virtually every scene she is in as Baba the Turk, which is not a testament to her singing which is a little ragged around the edges but her immense acting talent which often more than compensates. The perennially stentorian James Morris was wonderful as Nick Shadow. Conductor Donald Runnicles was on the podium with a spirited version of the score if not the most detailed.

With so much to like on stage, what could possible go wrong? If the Rake’s Progress proves anything, it is that in opera, like apples, one rotten scene can run dangerously close to dragging down everything with it. The whole piece seemed to be sprinting toward a winning evening when suddenly everything unraveled in the final insane asylum scene. After the prior 2 and a half hours whizzing by, things came to a grinding halt through a series on concurrent poor choices. First, the set for the asylum was set into the floor placing much of it out of view, at least for the orchestra. Runnicles elected to take things much slower than the rest of the evening presumably to match the change in tone from more comic to more tragic and to allow the soloists to lovingly languish over some of the beautiful lines Stravinsky has written for them. Sadly the effect was more like pricking a balloon with a pin and one could feel all of the air rushing out of the room. It was a case of opera jet lag and those previously missing two hours suddenly returned to everyone’s regret. Still, there is too much right about this production overall to miss it during the remaining five performances at the War Memorial Opera House through December 9.


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