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Boston Lyric Opera presents The Rake’s Progress

Tom Rakewell (Ben Bliss) falls captive to Mother Goose’s ladies (Photography by T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography).

Tom Rakewell (Ben Bliss) falls captive to Mother Goose’s ladies (Photography by T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography).


By James Foritano

Boston, MA – A new production by director Allegra Libonati illuminates the Cutler Majestic’s historic stage and house with a tale at once simple and profound.

Simple because, to the delight of this opera lover, the characters to keep in view form a neat triad of hero (Tom Rakewell, sung by Ben Bliss), heroine (Anne Trulove, sung by Anya Matanovic) and villain (Nick Shadow, sung by Kevin Burdette).

Tom Rakewell is our wavering hero who charges off to London with a new inheritance, eying the goal of tasting all London’s sophisticated — and mostly low pleasures — while keeping intact the purity of his love to Anne Trulove. Nick is a dope, but a dope with the complication of deeper qualities which shine progressively albeit tragically stronger as his fate closes around him.

Villain Nick Shadow is no dope; he’s a hunter of human folly so astute you might think him to be the devil incarnate, if you happened to be superstitious — or merely observant. Kevin Burdette’s wily, quick-silver, comprehension manifests even before he opens his mouth to sing the bass and base tones that Igor Stravinsky’s musical score prompts. Nick’s very double-takes turn to satanic comprehension on the instant. His bearing is subtly modulated to the fears and hopes of each character that he addresses and each world that he inhabits.

As valiant and as nimble as Nick Shadow’s deep villainy is, thank heaven, the staunch love and loyalty of Anne Trulove is played to the hilt and beyond by Anya Matanovic. Though her love, Ben Bliss’s Tom Rakewell is blinded by the gold of his inheritance, and even her protective daddy Trulove, sung by David Cushing, foolishly leans on the shoulder of Nick Shadow to guide Tom through London’s snares, Anne’s instincts trouble her with premonitions.

Not one to worry without taking action, Trulove belts out a solo at the end of act one that rings with steely determination as it coos with delicate feelings — cluing us in the audience and Nick Shadow onstage that a titanic struggle will ensue — and soon — for the soul of Tom and of mankind.

High drama, though, waits on low drama, as Tom spends his inheritance, in true rake fashion, on bubbles and broads. Oscillating between evening dress and under-shorts, Tom runs with mad company into one madcap venture to another. Finally, to relieve his boredom, Tom marries, infamously, for celebrity and goes bankrupt with the highest, most desperate motives.

Librettists/poets W.H. Auden and his sometime lover, Chester Kallman, collaborated on the bold chance that they could sell opera-goers a script that rescues, at the last moment, conditionally, a feckless rake from the talons of a man-killer — who might even be Satan himself!

Call me sentimental, but I believe in this improbable rescue — whole cloth — as woven by the flexible, stand-up soprano notes of Anya Matanovic’s Anne Trulove.

If Trulove weaves the staunch woof of this cloth, the warp is summoned by Ben Bliss’ Tom Rakewell as his heretofore plaintive tenor mans-up to lyric loss and heroic yearning.

Lingering skepticism that virtue could neatly, if not absolutely, trump vice was banished, for me, by Nick Shadow’s horrible dissolution. Once so devilishly dominant a player in this game of ultimate stakes, Kevin Burdett’s Nick Shadow, countered, evokes a pity so irrational it almost reaches out a hand to a villainy blasted by its own slick machinations.

In sum, the costumes, sets, songs and, not least, acting prop to full height a rollicking tale that in lesser hands could easily go a-wobble. Not to mention that, in this new production, the composer, Stravinsky himself, suited and bespectacled, is resurrected by Yury Yanowsky to wander between the players with wordless, but by no means silent,
encouragement.

(Boston Lyric Opera’s presents “The Rake’s Progress” through March 19 at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston, Mass.; shows take place on Wednesday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, call (617) 492-6772.)