Love is always disappointing, isn’t it?
Have I mentioned how very much I love The Rake’s Progress?
Maybe I was expecting too much from San Francisco Opera’s new production, given the promise of a new staging from Robert Lepage, with an interesting-sounding switch from the usual Hogarthian London to a semi-contemporary, semi-1950s (excuse me, midcentury) setting in the Texas oil fields and Hollywood, and with an exceptional cast that included William Burden as Tom, Laura Aiken as Anne, James Morris as Nick Shadow, and Denyce Graves as Baba the Turk. And it did affect my evening though not my view of the performance that the man behind me was virtuosic in his rudeness: talking, stamping his feet (yes, Denyce Graves looks good in a swimsuit), clicking and dropping his water (though I swear I smelled liquor a couple of times) bottle, coughing, rustling and rattling, and finally rising to a pasticcio Rossinian crescendo in the second half by adding the loud smacking of his chewing gum, a noise that to me is worse than the proverbial fingernails on a blackboard. By the time I realized how bad the one-man band was going to be I was trapped. And I was getting a weird, hostile vibe from this guy that made me think it would do no good to turn around and tell him to shut up. But as a connoisseur of irritation, I can tell the difference between a wonderful evening spoiled by one element and an evening where all the elements are not quite going right. It’s like the time I finally went to Florence: I would have preferred it if it hadn’t rained most of the time, or if the sun had been out for more than (no exaggeration) one or two hours in the entire nine days (though in those occasional hours I realized for the first time that brown can be a deeply romantic color – perhaps that’s why Alice B. Toklas said it was her favorite?), but still I loved being there, room with a view and all.
Lepage’s production is very clever; in fact, it’s probably too clever, filled with distracting stunts at just the wrong time. Sometimes people will point out to me, in case I hadn’t noticed, that I approach opera from a theatrical point of view (which always reminds me of my paternal grandmother pointing out to my cousin that she never had anything bad to say about anybody; for years and years my cousin, a genuinely lovely and loving person, mistook this for a compliment). Yes, I do approach it that way, mostly because it is theater, theater of a very basic sort. But Lepage should have remembered the advice of that experienced director, Hamlet, to avoid actions which will “set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.” The most egregious example is during Anne’s big scene (“No word from Tom”). The moon is above, Anne is standing near the front of the stage, and the Trulove home is a full-size miniature placed far back on the stage Kabuki-style, so that you get a remarkable sense of perspective and, with fairly simple means, a stunning stage picture. That’s fine. But all the windows in the house are lit, and in them, moving from room to room – and this is truly an ingenious effect, and I have no idea how they did it except through some sort of unbelievably complicated projection – you see the tiny black shadow figure of Father Trulove moving from room to room, presumably in search of his daughter. I’d say this is Anne’s key scene, and generally important to the drama, but while she is singing the very Shakespearean sentiment that if love be love it will not alter, the audience (including me, and I know better) is distractedly thinking, “Wow! How are they doing that? Look, the little figure is moving! Awesome!” When it stops at the door and calls out (in the offstage voice of Kevin Langan), “Anne! Anne!” about half the audience just lost it and started applauding the effect, drowning out the key lines in which Anne decides she will leave her father and search for the faithless Tom.
Some of the effects are perfectly done: I loved Nick Shadow emerging, dark and oily, from underneath the derrick that was pumping away in the first scene, in a suggestive image of the role oil and oil money play in our world. And when Mother Goose (the reliable Catherine Cook) claims her elder right in Tom, they sink into the huge mattress so that the sheets gradually cover them and they disappear under the stage, swallowed by the bed. But more often you get things like the movie-star trailer slowly inflating behind Tom, so that the audience is applauding a big balloon instead of William Burden. Or you get the trailer flying up into the wings, revealing a very Douglas Sirk-looking back projection, with Anne in front driving a sporty red car to find Tom, a long scarf trailing behind her (so long it had to be moved by wires; in fact it was, as the man behind me pointed out three times in quick succession, one long-ass scarf). The car and the scarf and the whole attitude seemed much more suited to glamorous Baba than to a country girl like Anne, but there were a number of odd lapses like that.
For example, there’s the strangely sloppy staging of Baba’s reappearance, after Tom has silenced her ranting not by covering her but by shoving her into their pool (it’s Hollywood, of course they have a pool). So during the auction scene, as the crowd mills around the pool bidding on various objects hoisted up from the depths, up comes a seemingly dead Baba the Turk in a bathing suit. Yet no one reacts to what is very obviously the body of a drowned woman – and not just any drowned woman, but a celebrity known to them all – and in fact, the auctioneer (the lively Steven Cole) entices them by speculating on what the mysterious object might be. Dude – it’s Baba the Turk. She’s right there in front of you! Within the context of the opera it is believable and witty that she would pick up mid-note as soon as she is unveiled, but here there seems no reason why she suddenly revives. At least they managed to keep her beard attached during this scene; during her big unveiling, she seemed to have barely a few wisps on her chin, and I thought my eyes were going, but I guess what went was the beard.
(By the way, it seems really obvious to me from the way the music builds, and from the careful omission before she appears of any phrases dealing with unfortunate facial hair, that we’re not supposed to know quite what the marvelous deal is with Baba the Turk until that big unveiling. Yes, Shadow shows Tom a broadsheet from St Giles’s fair, but that doesn’t mean the audience gets to see it too. It should be quite a striking and funny coup de theatre when she unveils, yet every production I’ve seen makes sure we know in advance that she’s a bearded lady. A lot of opera productions make the mistake of just assuming that everyone already knows the story anyway, so they don’t have to tell it thoughtfully or keep its surprises until their appropriate time. And thus repetition palls him, indeed.)
As for the general concept of the show, this is not the first production I’ve seen that takes the action out of some version of eighteenth-century England. Back in the late 1980s (possibly early 1990s) I saw a brilliant production at MIT of all places that set it in Reagan’s America, with Wall Street as the stand-in for the false pleasures of London. (It’s funny to think that would be an historical staging now, but it was contemporary at the time.) The overlay between success on Reagan’s Wall Street and in eighteenth-century-style London is actually pretty exact. In this oil field/Hollywood version there are just a lot more nagging discrepancies. For one thing, Father Trulove is meant to be a steady and substantial man of modest prosperity; making him a Texas oilman immediately makes him both far wealthier and far more of a risk-taker than he should be to function as a contrast to Tom – in fact, it changes him into a successful version of Tom instead of a contrast to him. As for the Hollywood angle, sure, it’s fine if hackneyed, and the whole “false culture of Hollywood” thing seems a little cheap to me, both too obvious and not quite true enough. (The same thing with the television that also shows up in the second half: television is just a means of distribution, like a printing press. I don’t find anything inherently insidious in television.) But the thing about our celebrity culture is that it’s all-pervasive (I can’t even pick up e-mail without passing through headlines about the uninteresting antics of various drunken starlets) in a way that doesn’t really correspond to what happens to Tom in the more insular world of London. So presenting Tom as a celebrity in our current style makes it a little difficult to believe that Anne would have no idea where Tom was or that he was about to marry a circus performer (and the daughter of a Texas oil man is not exactly going to be an unsophisticated country lass, unused to high society).
Here’s another odd bit of staging: every copy of the libretto I have (three or four of the recordings I have come with the text) says that after Father Trulove rebukes Tom in the first scene (“So he be honest, she may take a poor husband if she choose, but I am resolved she shall never marry a lazy one”) he exits into the house and then Tom says “The old fool!” Yet this production (and also the Merola production of a few years ago) has Tom speak the line while Trulove is still on stage; Trulove then hesitates and goes into the house. Trulove is kind, but also dignified, and it seems out of character for him (especially when you’re looking at him as a wealthy Texas oil man) to put up with such a direct insult without any rebuke (though of course he has to, since Auden, Kallman, and Stravinsky didn’t provide one). Tom may be weak-willed, but also good-hearted, and it seems out of character for him (in both aspects) to insult Anne’s father in such a blatant way within his hearing. I sound like the opera audiences I make fun of, but let’s pay attention to character and the libretto, shall we?
As for the singers, I’ve heard memorable performances in the past from all of the leads, and on paper I thought this production had the strongest cast this season, with the possible exception of the upcoming Ariodante. My major complaint about the conducting of Runnicles is that I feel he has a tendency to cover the singers, and I thought a lot of that was going on that night. The men came off better. Burden is sympathetic, thoughtful, and expressive as Tom. Morris has the right slightly overpowering and menacing quality as Shadow (and it adds an extra frisson to hear a famous Wotan singing that “he alone is free / Who chooses what to will, and wills / his choice as destiny”). Laura Aiken, so celestially memorable as the Angel in St Francois that I’ve loved her ever since, was a beautiful Anne but perhaps a bit underpowered. Graves has plenty of Baba’s glam theatricality and grandeur, but I thought she missed some of her heart. Baba is really the only character who changes through the action – Anne’s role of course is to be steadfast; Tom’s circumstances change, but his personality doesn’t; and the Devil (or the spirit of eternal negation, to emphasize the Faustian) stays in his element the whole time (though I once sat next to a man who didn’t realize until two and a half acts had passed that “Nick Shadow” was a devil). So it’s a shame to shortchange Baba’s wise and kind advice to Anne.
I went in wanting to love it. I was disappointed. That’s why they play the games, I guess.