Stravinsky’s whimsical ‘Rake’ enchants 

San Francisco Opera’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s "The Rake’s Progress" is such a success on every level that it’s hard to know where to begin recounting its pleasures. Music, singing, costumes, conducting, sets, acting, choreography, artistic conception — everything comes together with such sparkle and ease that the only complaint likely to surface is that the production runs only five more times through Dec. 9.

Stravinsky’s operatic collaboration, with its brilliant English text by partners W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, is miles apart from the savagery of his early ballet, "The Rite of Spring." Loosely based on William Hogarth’s 18th-century series of engravings known as "A Rake’s Progress," the thoroughly, modern, neoclassic fable is a morality play of sorts. Similar to Mozart’s "Don Giovanni," it spends 98 percent of the time having a ball with its protagonist’s adventures, saving the moralizing for its winking conclusion. From the first note to last, the music and lyrics are such a nonstop combination of spiky rhythms, contrasting colors and brilliant invention as to confound the senses. Time and again, I found the libretto so astoundingly clever that I wanted to reach out, grab the words, and savor them slowly, as one might a line of poetry. But before I could, the next phrase of delight came bubbling across the footlights, propelling music and action forward.

One might reasonably expect that a production heavily influenced by Hollywood classics "Giant," "Red Garters," "Destry Rides Again," "Sunset Boulevard" and "The Snake Pit" would reek of excess. Instead, director Robert Lepage, the creator and director of Cirque du Soleil’s "KÀ," brilliantly underscores Stravinsky’s sparkle while honoring his classical restraint. (Indeed, the tension between unbounded invention and time-honored musical forms contributes greatly to the opera’s success.) Rather than trampling over harpsichord accompaniment with a parade of trapeze artists, contortionists and the like, Lepage and co-director Sybille Wilson consistently direct attention back to music and lyrics. (Not only am I not going to reveal details of their creation, I urge you not to seek them out. The less you know in advance, the more you will be amazed by the production’s boundless charm).

William Burden, blessed with a remarkably free, youthful tenor, creates a most endearing Tom Rakewell, climbing over walls, lounging by the pool, ultimately tearing at one’s heart. Soprano Laura Aikin is almost equally affecting as Anne Trulove, producing a host of radiant phrases along with effortless runs and a perfect, sustained high C at theend of the great aria that begins, "No word from Tom." Both veteran James Morris (Nick Shadow) and Denyce Graves (Baba The Turk) may wobble a bit at the top of the range, but they retain the distinctive timbre, projection and stage presence that make them true stars. Morris is truly the devil you’d invite to dinner, and Graves is the preposterous prima donna whom you’d welcome without clothes. As Trulove, Kevin Langan gives evidence of his years onstage, but his far straighter portrayal is quite effective. Merola alum Catherine Cook (Mother Goose) relishes every one of her too few seconds onstage, creating another in a series of memorable character portrayals. Ditto for Steven Cole (Sellem), who, after studying his role with its creator, Hugues Cuénod, can’t resist oversinging to hurl his character over the top.

Stravinsky’s smaller scale may be miles apart from Wagner’s, but conductor Donald Runnicles rewards it with equal attention to dynamic thrust, forward momentum and clarity. Indeed, Runnicles seems aware that every statement from the woodwinds, like every line of the libretto, is a gem. As a result, we have a performance to treasure.

The Rake’s Progress

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 and Dec. 7; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 28; 2 p.m. Dec. 9

Tickets: $15 to $275

Contact: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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