It’s an English opera composed in Hollywood by a Russian. Igor Stravinsky saw the paintings and engravings by the 18th-century William Hogarth, depicting the consequences of loose living and licentiousness, centered on the fictional Tom Rakewell.
The English W. H. Auden and the American Chester Kallman then created a libretto that introduced a new character, Nick Shadow—the Devil—who entices Tom with promises of happiness and money. Tom loses everything, and ends up, literally, in Bedlam, the insane asylum, with the faithful Anne Trulove by his side.
The Rake’s Progress premiered in Venice in 1951 with none other than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Anne. The Metropolitan Opera gave the American premiere two years later, under Fritz Reiner.
Stravinsky’s music is a sonic reflection of the artwork Hogarth created in the 1730s. This phase of Stravinsky’s career is often called neoclassical, but The Rake’s Progress might just as well be called neo-Baroque for the musical gestures, which take square rhythms and spinning lines and twists them off-kilter as only Stravinsky can.
All that busy-ness should remind us of the moral of The Rake’s Progress, delivered by the cast in the finale: that the Devil makes work for idle hands.
Listen to The Met Opera's production of The Rake's Progress on WRTI, Saturday, May 9, 2015 at 1 pm.