If you are looking for a more or less ideal account of this most elegant of 20th century operas then you will find one here. If not, may I suggest that you ought to be, because otherwise you are missing out sadly.
Stravinsky himself emphasised that an overly literal enactment of this libretto should be avoided, its real point being its moral. It represents his second go at a slightly lightened version of the Faust/Mephistopheles legend, the first having been The Soldier's Tale, so his instruction hardly needed even that much emphasis. Even Berlioz withholds the really frightening character of Mephistopheles until near the end, and Stravinsky and Auden leave Nick Shadow's full unveiling until after he has let Tom Rakewell escape his ensnarement, so that we end up feeling almost sorrier for Nick than for Tom. Tom's story certainly points up the moral that the devil finds work for idle hands, but the poor old junior devil who has failed in his assignment is now going to have to face Our Father Below. It all leaves the production with the issue of how to handle nearly 3 acts before we come to the real point of it all, and my vote goes emphatically to the way Gardiner and his team of celebs go about it.
If the work is new to you, may I earnestly recommend reading the libretto carefully before you play the music. The libretto is by WH Auden and also by Chester Kallman, about whom the liner note is silent although it has a great deal to say about the cordial interaction between the composer and Auden. If you don't think much of the libretto as `writing' or as `literature' neither do I, but that is to miss the point. Great poetry and great writing just do not go very well to music in most cases, and what Auden has done is to turn out a not-overdone pastiche of the 18th century idiom, the sort of thing that the Rev Morell turned out so expertly for several of Handel's oratorios. In fact the best versifying probably comes (intermittently) in the last act when Auden changes from the 18th century manner to the rhyme-scheme of The Ancient Mariner; and I wonder whether this is a deliberate allusion to that great epic of spiritual disgrace and subsequent redemption.
This whole dramatisation of Hogarth is treated by poet and composer as picturesque and stylised, but as no more than a good yarn, building up the evidence until Nick's final judgment until he inexplicably fumbles that and spares our emotions. Bostridge is lightweight, Deborah York as Anne is lightweight, the formidable von Otter who has bowled me over before now in Schumann Respighi and Chaminade goes lightweight as the bearded bride, the other male parts are neither here nor there - they are all lightweight except for Nick, and Bryn Terfel holds everything in reserve until his own final undoing, when we realise what he had led Tom into, only Tom has got off more easily than he might have done. Terfel is simply terrific at this point, and I can only hope that from his own Elysium the composer feels that his exhortation regarding the point of it all has been properly followed. Do you agree with the liner note writer that this opera is dominated by the title role? The view makes no sense to me, and it would have been the wrong sense if it had done. Bostridge is a great artist, and he knows better than to try to make Tom any kind of equal contender with Terfel's Nick.
Auden's book keeps its eye on being what it ought to be, namely a good opera libretto. In my own opinion it is a superb libretto, pacing the action magnificently and delineating the characters with the kind of clarity that fits Stravinsky's musical idiom like a glove. From the conductor's point of view this may make it all as easy and natural as it is made to sound, but I wouldn't put any money on that. This musical direction is the art that conceals art, and in this most Mozartian of modern music dramas that is exactly what we want.
The recording (1997) is absolutely excellent in my own opinion. Joseph Kerman's liner note is bitty and piecey, requiring more concentration from the reader than it rewards. There are resumes of the principal artists, and I can think of no reason why we could not have had similar short sketches of all of them. I love this composer, and I love this opera, and this is my own idea of how to do it. It even ends with a vaudeville in which the singers step out of costume and remind us of the moral of the tale, as in Verdi's Falstaff. I don't really know why Stravinsky was so worried that this might be underplayed, but I like the company he keeps.
This set captures such excellent, vivid and clear performances that the story leaps out by just listening. You won't really even need to follow the printed libretto. Every single character is perfectly sung and the orchestra and conductor are in top form. The whole thing brims with wit and charm making it very very enjoyable. I have listened to it several times already.
You don't need to see this opera - you just need to listen to this recording. There's such a sense of life and energy about the playing and the singing that you're completely drawn in, and it's difficult to listen to just one track without wanting to hear the whole thing. It's a great piece - wonderfully accessible and musically one of the most colourful operas in the business. A great recording.
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.