|Happiness is a miracle machine and a stifled wife.|
It was déjà vu all over again on Tuesday night, when the Moravian-Silesian Theaterʼs production of Stravinskyʼs The Rakeʼs Progress brought some familiar faces back to the National Theater. Joining the cast for bows after the performance were director Jiří Nekvasil and set designer Daniel Dvořák, a formidable team at the Prague State Opera and National Theater a decade ago. The enthusiastic applause suggested they havenʼt lost their touch.
In theory, the story of a man who casts aside a gorgeous fiancee and promising career for a life of debauchery that ends in an insane asylum is not grist for a lively comedy. But with tongue-in-cheek humor and increasingly outrageous sets, props and costumes, Nekvasil and his team created a witty, refreshingly modern version of the Faust tale. Broad acting, great timing and a brisk rendition of Stravinskyʼs surprisingly traditional score give it strong appeal without sacrificing any intelligence or depth.
The production opens in straightforward fashion – with the title character, Tom Rakewell (Jorge Garza), and his betrothed, Anne Trulove (Jana Šrejma Kačirková) professing their love around a model house and yard mounted on a swaying platform. The promise of domestic bliss turns out to be just as shaky when Nick Shadow (Ulf Paulsen), the devil in disguise, enters from the loge at stage left and persuades Tom to run off with him to the bright lights of London. The main light turns out be a flashing electronic message board offering lurid enticements of money, business and entertainment, echoed in a scarlet-themed brothel where Tom quickly succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh.
Anne comes searching for him in virginal white, but by then Tom is clothed in kingly gold and trailed by a decadent entourage carrying his new bride – Baba the Turk (Yvona Škvárová), an improbably large, bearded woman. He sends Anne away, stops his hairy wifeʼs nagging by putting a large cardboard box over her head, and turns his attention to Nickʼs newest gimmick, a preposterous machine that can supposedly transform rocks into bread. Investing in it drives Tom into bankruptcy, and the message board mockingly flashes BANKROT as his estate is auctioned off, then counts down the final seconds as the devil prepares to drag him into the steaming pit of hell.
Nekvasil takes full advantage of the operaʼs comic opportunities. Tom and Babaʼs domestic hell is portrayed like a TV sitcom, with Škvárová throwing a temper tantrum and fuming in fractured musical phrases. The miracle machine looks like a cross between a clothes washer and an industrial vacuum cleaner, painted in cheap gold. Still, the key to comedy is timing, and Nekvasil is a master at moving his characters around with stage with fluidity and precision. A pregnant pause and salacious “Well?” from Nick after offering another temptation to Tom was enough to draw giggles from the audience.
Garza is a solid tenor but with limited emotional range; his character only took on urgency in the final act. Paulsenʼs smooth bass-baritone and oily, leering manner were note-perfect for the devil. Šrejma Kačirková was a beauty with brains, singing with heartbreaking tenderness as she watched her man slip away. And Škvárová nearly stole the show in her brief turn as the demented bearded lady. The only weak showing was by the chorus, which stumbled through some of its choreography and served up mostly tepid vocals
Musically, the most striking thing about Rake is how conventional it is. With standard arias, recitatives and choral numbers, it hardly sounds like an opera written in 1951, much less by Igor Stravinsky. But there are clear and classic Stravinsky elements, particularly in the woodwinds, which conductor Jakub Klecker did a fine job of drawing out in a spirited, nuanced performance in the pit.
Intentionally or not, this production references some well-known works. The climactic confrontation with the devil would fit neatly in Don Giovanni, and the final scene in the insane asylum called to mind the closing moments of Miloš Formanʼs Amadeus. While those are good company to be in, Nekvasilʼs Rake stands on its own as a fresh and amusing take on an age-old story. The veterans, it seems, can still deliver.
For more on The Rakeʼs Progress (in Czech): http://www.ndm.cz/cz/opera/predstaveni/327-zivot-prostopasnika/2012-05-25/2967/
Photo: Martin Popelář