Musings and updates at

Friday 18 March 2011

Stravinsky's Rake

A few of weeks ago I saw a great student production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Cambridge, but I am not going to review it in depth. Christopher Stark was conducting, and I'm always impressed by his sense of enterprise and ambitiousness - he conducted an exquisite Pelléas and Mélisande as a student opera production last year - neither work is standard fare for amateur productions and both times the standard was superb. The singing from all, including the chorus (thank you Cambridge choral training!), was excellent, and the staging and directing was simple but very good. Very enjoyable indeed. Not quite the time stopping wonder of last year's Pelléas, but then it's a very different opera.

So what do I actually want to write about? Stravinsky's extraordinary music. This opera may be the most touching thing Stravinsky ever wrote - just occasionally in this piece, he relaxes the steely self concealment and perfect control and lets a bit of sentiment slip out, as this most emotionally demonstrative of genres requires. The farewell scene, Tom's brothel Cavatina, Anne's monologue, and most touching of all the final delirious reconciliation between the two leads are all very moving, even if they are still perhaps the most restrained utterances of their kind in the operatic repertoire. And they are only moving in relief from, and contrasted to, the normal tone of the opera: charmingly and cleanly neo classical, fast-paced, clear-hued, seeming almost naive in it's directness, if it weren't all so masterfully constructed.

This opera is Mozartian in a way that Strauss' "Mozart pastiches" never are (Der Rosenkavalier as Mozartian is one of the strangest and most disingenuous clichées that one hears repeated endlessly in musical criticism). Stravinsky famously had an aversion to Wagner (and Strauss) and this opera may well be the least Wagnerian opera of the 20th century; not just un-Wagnerian but anti-Wagnerian. References to his model, particularly to Don Giovanni, are everywhere: most obviously the division of music into numbers (arias, ensembles, cabalettas etc.) and recitatives (replete with harpsichord), but also the grave-yard scene, the dramatic descent of the sinful character into hell with accompanying fire and brimstone (though notably Mozart sends his Rake to hell, whereas Stravinsky does not), and most tellingly the moral drawn at the end with the characters addressing the audience directly.

Also Mozartian is the perfect sense of pacing and convincing comic tone (Auden's superb libretto, indeed Da Ponte-ian in quality, plays a large part here), the dramatic believability, the depth and range of emotion expressed with such felicity and such understatement (Mozart unquestionably more varied and natural in this however), warm invention of the orchestration (chamber in scale), rhythmic bouyancy, the elegantly pliant vocal lines (here wrought and sculpted with the text often oddly accented, contrasting with the completly "natural" expression in Mozart). Stravinsky the magpie is fully on display (Purcell, Gluck, Donizetti and early Verdi also part of the gumbo), albeit with (barely) more transformation of his source material than in the Pergolesi and Tchaikovsky reworkings. Stylistically in fact there is less transformation, and in some ways this is the greatest and most serious pastiche ever composed, though this pastiche is unusual in that it is never sentimental and only rarely affords us an ironic sidewards glance. A noticable discrepancy in approach with his echt-classical predecessor: Stravinsky can't help repeating musical material attatched to certain characters and moods as memory plays such an important role in the opera. This is nothing like Wagnerian Leitmotivic usage of course, but certainly not the Classical operatic practice of never repeating thematic material outside a "number". Stravinsky is too concerned with cyclicity, recollection and unity to completely shirk this useful innovation (though Mozart's late operas also each maintain remarkable unity... more on this at a later date).

The comparison with Strauss is again telling if we consider the orchestration. Both are masters of the orchestra but completely antagonistic in approach and effect. Stravinsky thrives on paucity of resource, and often does the most magical conjuring with the smallest and strangest instrumental combinations. To take an example: In Act 1, Scene 3, ("No word from Tom") the introduction scored for oboe, cor anglais and bassoon which in it's mournful caress nostalgically remembers the opening duet for the lovers (shades of Cosi), whilst simultaneously evoking the atmosphere and background of the scene too - has such a simple combination of instruments ever been more uniquely memorable or perfectly apt in every parameter? The timbre of the instruments, their registral characteristics combined with their voicings and spacing, and the rhythms employed are masterfully and artlessly united to perfectly set the scene here - the result in its way as atmospheric as anything in Strauss' orchestral paint-box. The effect is that one can always hear everything and keep track of all sounding elements in real time, whilst at the same time appreciating that the whole is somehow indescribably greater than its parts - as in Mozart, there's the feeling that there's nothing mysterious here, but like the magician who seems to show you his empty hands and demonstrates the plainness of the objects on the table, you still end up surprised and beguiled.

Strauss is of course the supreme master of orchestral opulence (better than Korngold, who tends towards aural blandness because everything is always piled on as thick as it will go), the large orchestra bending to his incredible fantasy and perfect control due to his consummate understanding of what it can do. The effect is always an integrated "whole orchestra" conception, the variously dizzyingly frothy, stridently heroic or warmly glowing wash of sound completely concealing its own means. Stravinsky's rate of ideas is much higher, which is part of what lends his music its compelling and uncapturable edge, but Strauss' rate of notes is by far the greater, and as they rush by, they completely overwhelm the senses.

The Rake's Progress is one of the finest operas of the post war years and represents in some respects an apotheosis of the neoclassical style. Schoenberg had just died when it was composed, and Stravinsky subsequently moved on to his final and least known period, finally able to embrace serialism which he had always seemed made for, now that the shadow of the German giant no longer loomed so large.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting comparison with Strauss has occured to me. Strauss' last opera, Capriccio, is a sort of paean to the form, a farewell, autumnal and reverential. Stravinsky's opera is as much referential as reverential but is similarly backward looking, a self conscious (though less explicit) playing with and conversation with operatic history.