Merola Artists Stage Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”

Merola Artists Stage Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”

Carol Benet

Every summer the Merola singers stage a Schwabacher Summer Concert, two operas and a Grand Finale concert.  On July 5 and 7  Kathleen Kelly conducted the young singers at Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. On July 19 and 22 at the SF Conservatory they played Mozart’s “Il re pastore”.  On August 2 and 4 they performed Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”.  And to wind up on August 18,  all participants in the program present the Merola Grand finale at 7:30 P.M. at the War Memorial Opera House.  Then they will sing selections from several favorite operatic works.

In its 61st season, The Merola Program was instituted more than 50 years ago by the then Director of the San Francisco Opera Kurt Herbert Adler.  It was to offer training in The City to budding opera professionals.  Named after the first general director of SF Opera Gaetano Merola, it started with 14 contestants for 4 weeks.  At first most of them came from the western states of the U.S.. Now, a half century later, the Merola has blossomed into a 12 week program that attracts 23 singers, five apprentice coaches and one apprentice stage director from countries all over the world. It is one of the most prestigious opera training programs in existence.  Some of the former participants are Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt and Ruth Ann Swenson.

Their production of this 2018 summer’s “The Rake’s Progress” was wonderful.  A demanding opera that Stravinsky wrote in 1947, in it he combines his modernism with its strange harmonies and rhythms and a neo-classicism. The opera was inspired by an art exhibit Stravinsky attende In Chicago with 8 etchings and paintings by the 18th century artist William Hogarth that tell  of Tom Rakewell.  Stravinsky made his opera from the tale of the art.  He chose the famous poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kaliman to write the libretto of “The Rake’s Progress”.

Rakewell (Christopher Oglesby) and his fiancée Anne Truelove (Meigui Zhang) are courting in the garden of Anne’s country house.  Anne’s father (Ted Allen Pickell), with a rich bass voice, sings that he is worried that Rakewell is a lazy young man who trusts his wit and luck rather than seeking honest hard work.

A darkly suspicious guest with long grey tresses and a smirk arrives and announces that Rakewell has inherited a fortune from a distant uncle. This guest is Nick Shadow and he is a shadowy character indeed, a real Mephisto type.  Played by Jacob Scharfman, Nick takes Rakewell to London to show him how to maneuver in the big city. There they both fall into the world of Mother Goose’s (Alexandra Urquiola’s) brothal with Its a wild scene of drugs, sex and mayhem.  But Tom tires of this life asking Nick for only happiness.  Nick then pushes him into marriage with the bearded woman Baba the Turk (Anne Maguire) and he soon tires of this as well. Next  Nick proposes a contraption that is supposed to turn stones into bread.  With it Tom thinks he will save the world and with this invention and his thoughts turn again to Anne for now  he would be worthy of her love.

Eventually, after succeeding in regaining his soul from Nick, Tom ends up in Bedlam, the famous London insane asylum, with delusions of grandeur that he is Adonis and Anne is Venus.  He dies there after Anne visits him.  A sad ending to a lively story that has Nick stating its moral: For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do.

This full staged Merola opera has the accompaniment of an excellent large professional orchestra under the conducting of Mark Morash who with the directer Robin Guarino , both important figures in the world of opera, help create a vey polished work. Excellent costumes by Christine Crook and sets by Donald Eastman place us right into the 18th century from when the Hogarth etchings originate.  In the future we will hear much about this production’s Meigui Zhang as Anne as well as the bass Ted Allen Pickle as her father. Scharfman’s Nick Shadow performed as an enticing devil, like other prototypes from Milton to Goethe.

Tickets for the Merola Grand Finale on August 18, 7:30 PM may be obtained from the SF Opera Box Office 415 864 3330.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →