Miller Evokes ‘Age of Anxiety’ In Stellar New Rake’s Progress

” The Rake’s Progress is simple to perform musically, but difficult to realize on the stage,” Igor Stravinsky once commented. This shrewd appraisal of the composer’s one full-length excursion into musical theater pinpoints the challenge of producing a work that remains, more than 40 years after its premiere, the most exhilarating yet fragile of modern operas.

With most operas, it is the music that’s hardest to get right-notwithstanding the urge among directors to complicate matters unnecessarily by putting their own “stamp” on things. With the Rake , it’s the other way around: How do you engage the audience’s sympathies over three acts that follow the deadliest of narrative recipes-that of a fable about the downfall of a young man who forsakes love, work and responsibility for idleness and pleasure? How do you keep the audience from sinking into the smugness of moral superiority?

Since its newsmaking premiere in Venice in 1951, The Rake’s Progress has inspired no end of directorial exuberance: John Cox and David Hockney applied a faux-naïve painter’s brush to a 1975 production for Glyndebourne; Robert Altman “opened up” a staging at the University of Michigan in 1984 with a filmmaker’s extravagance. Now, for a new production of the opera at the Metropolitan Opera, Jonathan Miller has discovered that within the neo-Mozartian brittleness of the Stravinsky score and the finger-wagging libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallmann there lurk not the figurines of a fable but very human figures whose foibles and desires are all too recognizably our own, who are more to be pitied than censured.

Perhaps not since Mr. Miller’s celebrated transfer of Rigoletto from ducal Mantua to Mafia-run Little Italy have I seen such a neatly resonant updating on the opera stage. Mr. Miller has often taken cues from the Zeitgeist in which the work was written; here, with a boldness that seems less audacious than utterly right, he has lifted poor Tom Rakewell’s “progress” out of the rococo frames of the 18th-century series of paintings by William Hogarth that inspired the opera, and set it in the early 1930′s. Peter Davison’s posterlike set design cleverly evokes both the fabulist form of the work and the Audenesque “age of anxiety” in which the old stabilities of honor, duty, family and capitalism were teetering. Judy Levin’s costumes, from the prim, girl-from-the-country look for Anne Trulove to the predatory glamour of Baba the Turk, recall both the innocence and worldliness of 30′s films.

Mr. Miller has long detested the grandness and artificiality of traditional opera performances, and he has directed the cast to behave as though they are not in an opera at all. Coming on the heels of the Met’s new La Cenerentola -a mishmash of a production that combined pretentious Magritte-like sets with stock acting and the grim razzle-dazzle of its star, Cecilia Bartoli-the simple naturalism of this Rake is especially welcome. (The production’s seamlessness of vision and execution is also another reminder of the Met’s rudderless artistic leadership-the absence, when somebody of the caliber of Mr. Miller isn’t around, of anyone who can oversee the integration of both the musical and dramatic aspects of a new production.)

For me-and I suspect for most of the audience-the central presence on stage was not the well-sung, if rather earnestly charmless, Tom Rakewell of Jerry Hadley or the elegantly malevolent Nick Shadow of Samuel Ramey. Nor was it Denyce Graves-the current Carmen of choice-who was broadly effective in the weird and difficult part of Tom’s bearded wife, Baba the Turk. What gave this Rake such palpable humanity was Dawn Upshaw as Tom’s spurned but determinedly faithful Anne Trulove.

Goodness is the hardest-and most boring-of human qualities to portray, but it shone in every fiber of Ms. Upshaw’s performance. With her pure, right-as-rain soprano, her marvelous “forward” diction, and her utter lack of affectation, she provided the moral compass that made Tom’s abandonment of her seem not just callow but appallingly stupid, and it elevated the pathos of his dead end in Bedlam beyond parable to the level of tragedy. Throughout, the warm, uncluttered clarity of Mr. Miller’s direction was matched by the sensitive playing of the Met’s orchestra under James Levine, reminding me that Stravinsky’s masterpiece isn’t just brilliant, it’s positively-and perversely-lovely.