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All is beautiful but the libretto is a gem,
This review is from: Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress (Audio CD)
W. H. Auden's libretto is pure poetry. The language is simple but the stanzas in most arias are extremely original in rhythm and in rhyme. He also plays with run-on lines, amplified by the music that makes the rhyme sound awkward and attractive to the ear. We have most of the time a perfect osmosis between the music and the text, between the two rhythmic beats, maybe even too perfect to be true. We are not surprised that in the best Shakespearean tradition words are repeated a certain number of times and that these numbers are meaningful. For one example Anne's Lullaby is perfect. It is ternary to the extreme. Three stanzas with the same rhyming pattern: AABCCDC, Three C rhymes. The line in D (non-rhyming at all) contains the repetition of one word three times. The rhyme in B is going to be identical in the three stanzas and thus be a rhyme. The two ternary elements (one rhyme and one repetition of a word) build a flash of Solomonic justice. Anne is putting Tom to sleep with a lullaby but that sleep is eternal and just. The ternary rhyme that runs over the three stanzas is building the same Solomonic flash of justice, reaching the peace of the Gospels and the Apostles.
This perfect Christian ending is even amplified by the duettino between Anne and her father. Anne's stanza has six lines with the simple rhyme pattern AABBCC, Solomonic indeed. But her father is echoing this sestina with a stanza of three lines using the same rhymes on the pattern ABC. This triplet turns the sestina into a set of nine lines, or three times three rhymes, the hour of Jesus' death, the death of the Savior and we are justified to wonder if Anne has not saved Tom after all and his death is the death of a saved person if not a savior. We could give many other examples of this great poetic art of the libretto.
The story itself is plunging its roots into many traditions. First of all that of the Dickensian poor and hard working man who suddenly turns rich. But here that richness is his doom. Then Faust since the go-between in that business is Nick, Old Nick of course, Satan himself who asks for Tom's soul at the end. But this Satan is tricked by luck or rather his own confidence no one can escape him and the twelfth stroke of midnight falls on an unfinished game that means Satan's defeat. But this defeat is parallel to that of Mephistopheles in the Second Faust by Goethe in which Faust is saved by three women, among whom Margret holds one place. Here the salvation is less formal but quite just as efficient, since Tom wakes up and realizes that the woman he believes is Venus who put him to sleep is gone.
But that phantasm of the end, that Venus Tom is invoking makes him be Adonis, an identity he assumes, even with the wild boar that kills him when he tries to escape Venus' love. There the situation is quite surprising. It is an allusion to Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis of course, but here the wild boar has to be pushed out for that love story to be possible, and This Tom-Adonis is begging for that love whereas in Shakespeare's story and the mythological tradition Adonis is running away from Venus. Maybe we can think Tom has run away from his Venus to be and is thus granted virtual and fictional satisfaction at the end. This difference anyway justifies the end of the opera in Bedlam, which implies Satan has had the last word in a way: he could not get Tom's soul, so he got his sanity and Tom has become insane including in believing Anne is Venus and he is Adonis in love with Venus.
Then of course you have allusions to numerous other works and operas. We can think of Dorian Gray or Lulu or the plays of Wedekind, but that's only secondary in this opera.
What remains about the story is the "moral of the story" as they call it. That's a formal allusion to T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral who ends with a long scene of explanation, justification and moral from the four killing knights. Here the moral is a lot more banal indeed: "For idle hands and hearts and minds the Devil finds a work to do, a work, dear Sir, dear Madam, for you and you." We could look for the multiples of three and we would find quite a few building the devil in this situation, as much as Solomon's number and the twelve apostles, as if there were the assertion that every sinner can be saved in this moral.
The music is good and in the recording I have it is directed by Stravinsky himself, so we can think it is exactly what he wanted. Unluckily it does not compare in creativity with Benjamin Britten's operas. It is more in the musical line of German composers of the first half of the 20th century. We can even think the clear division of the music in recitatives, more elaborate singing in prose very often and arias is in the line of Bach more than post-Wagner and even post-Verdi compositions. Even Mozart had moved away from the three tiers of music (prosody, psalmody and arias). What's more the music does not have the power of the text, even if some moments are very good like the instrumental introduction to the cemetery where Nick is going to be tricked out of his prey.
When this opera is staged - I saw it in Lille, France, among others - the rococo accumulation on the stage and the melodramatic to the point of burlesque exploitation of some scenes like the Bedlam scene or the auction may add a lot of expensive artifacts and props on the stage that may dazzle your eyes but the situation is rather simple and the story maybe not dramatic enough in spite of the allusion to the Pilgrim's Progress in the title.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU