Major Operas | The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky | Modern Era

Based on a series of eight Hogarth paintings, this opera was first performed on 11 September 1951 at Il Teatro La Fenice in Venice. In The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky’s neo-classical style maintains a clear delineation of musical numbers separated by recitatives (accompanied by harpsichord), and as such it has often been considered a stylistic companion to the works of Mozart and to Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.

While its form adheres to Classical ideals, certain basic elements such as melody are angular and disjointed, zig-zagging across the extremes of the singers’ vocal resources.

The themes of The Rake’s Progress are derived from literature and mythology – Nick Shadow is drawn from the Faustian character of Mephistopheles, and the young lovers are personified in a redemptive denouement as Venus and Adonis. Hogarth’s satiric paintings have come full cycle, and our fallen ‘hero’ now resides in Bedlam. The cast returns to the stage under full house lights to present the story’s epilogue-cum-moral, Mozart-like devices being used to disguise more serious post-war issues of morality.

Composed: 1947–51
Premiered: 1951, Venice
Libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman after William Hogarth’s series of paintings

Act I

Trulove is determined that his daughter Anne will never marry a lazy husband. Tom Rakewell scorns work and prefers to entrust himself to Fortune. At his words ‘I wish I had money’, Nick Shadow informs them that a previously unknown uncle has left Tom a fortune. Trulove urges him to go to London. Tom is reassured that he can settle Nick’s wages in a year and a day. He promises to send for Anne and Trulove. Nick announces that ‘the Progress of a Rake begins’.

The ‘roaring boys’ and whores are carousing at Mother Goose’s brothel. Tom recites the definitions of Pleasure and Beautiful he has been taught, but hesitates at Love, which burns his lips. Nick turns back a cuckoo clock with a gesture. Tom’s song of betrayed love interests the Whores, but Mother Goose claims him. Anne has not heard from Tom. Weeping will not do. Tom is weak and needs her help.

Act II

Tom is sick of London and would-be mothers-in-law. He does not dare think of the only honest girl he knows. He longs for simple pleasures: ‘I wish I were happy’. Nick suggests he should marry an attraction at St Giles Fair, Baba the Turk. Since he does not desire her and owes her nothing, such a marriage would guarantee Tom’s happiness. Tom thinks it would also make him famous.

Anne hesitates outside Tom’s London house. When he sees Anne and tells her to go home, indicating his new wife, the veiled Baba. Anne leaves. He tells Baba this was only a milkmaid he owed money to. To please the crowd Baba removes her veil, revealing a flowing black beard. Baba chatters through breakfast Tom glumly pushes her away. Suddenly jealous of Anne, she furiously throws everything in reach until Tom rams his wig on her head....

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