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The Rake's Progress
SANTA BARBARA, CA
Music Academy of the West
McPhail and Fisher, Nick Shadow and Tom Rakewell at Santa Barbara
© David Bazemore Photo 2012
The Rake's Progress, Igor Stravinsky's neoclassical tale of temptation, indulgence and downfall, is something of a departure for the Music Academy of the West, which in recent years has tended toward a more staid repertoire of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century warhorses. (A notable exception to this rule was the Music Academy's 2008 production of William Bolcom's A Wedding.) But while a few apprehensive murmurs could be heard in the moments before the curtain rose at Santa Barbara's historic Granada Theatre at the opening performance on August 3, the audience appeared to be quickly won over by the energetic cast and the skillfully executed production. Now in its sixty-fifth year, the Academy's Summer Festival brings together a group of aspiring young singers and instrumentalist for eight intensive weeks of lessons, master classes and performances, with the annual opera providing a focal point for a vocal program that has been headed by Marilyn Horne since 1997.
The young principal cast — none over the age of thirty — brought a welcome touch of freshness and vigor to the improbable collection of characters with which W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman populated their libretto. Adam Fisher made a sympathetic Tom Rakewell, with an expressive, affecting voice that gave added poignancy to the character's inexorable descent into ruin and madness. Cameron McPhail, with his powerful baritone and youthful visage, offered an affable Nick Shadow who was at once playful and sinister. Stepping in for an ill colleague on only a few hours' notice, Jessica Strong put in an impressive performance as Anne Trulove, while Kate Allen gave a compelling performance as the larger-than-life Baba the Turk.
The orchestra, under the direction of Alexander Lazarev and consisting of the Music Academy's instrumental fellows, dispatched Stravinsky's score mostly with ease, though Lazarev's uncompromisingly brisk tempos occasionally required a moment to completely solidify. The prominent harpsichord, energetically played by John Arida, was placed on a raised platform near the front of the pit, allowing the instrument to achieve an admirable balance with both the singers and orchestra without having to resort to artificial amplification.
The stage direction by David Paul was particularly effective during ensemble scenes, where the intricately planned movements of cast and chorus betrayed both thoughtfulness and attention to detail. The main set, designed by Sandra Goldmark, consisted of a monochromatic architectural façade adorned with a peculiar mélange of beaux-arts elements. More striking was the diverse assemblage of objects — from Chinese fans to an Egyptian sarcophagus — that was lowered from the fly space during Act II in order to provide the veritable cabinet of curiosities in which Tom and Baba made their not-so-happy home. While little about the set seemed to place the action firmly in a particular time or place, Stephanie Cluggish's stylish costuming suggested that the plot had been transported to the "Roaring Twenties." The staging of the final scene in Bedlam stopped just short of profundity, with Rakewell delivering his duet with Anne from within the confines of a stylized straitjacket, while the chorus of white-clad patients slowly writhed, sometimes distractingly, in the background.
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