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Terfel Returns to Opera in San Francisco Rake

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
06/10/2000 -  16, 20, 23, 25 and 29 June, 2000
Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress
Raymond Very (Tom Rakewell), Rebecca Evans (Anne Trulove), Bryn Terfel (Nick Shadow), Dale Travis (Trulove), Brian Asawa (Baba the Turk), Susan Nicely (Mother Goose), David Cangelosi (Sellem), Philip Horst (Keeper of the madhouse)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Markus Stenz (Conductor)
John Cox (Stage Director)

San Francisco Opera’s summer offerings this year doesn’t appear to be built around a central theme as they have in the past, but include Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Wagner’s Parsifal. But in place of an overt theme, General Director seems to have opted for wonderfully consistent casting. Whatever the reason, the results were highly satisfying if not quite idea.

The revival of Stravinsky’s witty and sardonic The Rake’s Progress benefited as much as any of the productions from the consistently high level of soloists, suitably cast in each case as well as from David Hockney’s brilliantly apt set and costume designs.
Much attention centered around Bryn Terfel’s performance as Nick Shadow. Earlier in the year, the Welsh singer was forced to cancel several engagements and undergo two back surgeries. This run of performances marked his return to the opera stage, although he has also sung some recitals since the operations. There was certainly no cause for concern. Terfel was in fine voice, his richly resonant and richly colored bass-baritone ringing out true and full. Likewise his superb diction for once made supertitles superfluous for an opera sung in English. Auden’s witty, urbane lyrics sounded natural and clear without interrupting Terfel’s smooth legato.

Dramatically his was a remarkably restrained Nick. Whether due to the residual effects of the back surgery or because he chose to play it that way, this devil was ninety percent proper English gentleman, with only enough flashes of the gleeful wickedness to remind us this was no ordinary chap. Terfel’s expressive face painted in a few well chosen takes and double takes the portrait of a demon playing cat and mouse with the spiritually and morally deprived Tom Rakewell.

As Tom, Raymond Very exhibited a clear lyric tenor with just enough vocal heft to give the character presence and strength. Tom may be spineless, but he is decisive and takes action, however misguidedly. Very found this middle course and managed to maintain interest and freshness in the character without trying to make him sophisticated or complicated. Toms’ ultimate fate in a madhouse was made all the more touching for the simplicity with which Very portrayed the role.

Although she sounded a little vocally uncomfortable at first, British soprano Rebecca Evans warmed up to became a determined, confident Anne Truelove. By the end of the first act, Evans’ clear, full-toned soprano sailed through the tricky waters of "I go, I go to him" capped with a solid, free-ringing high C. Furthermore, her virtuous devotion to Tom despite his wayward behavior never drew attention to itself, but rather served to center the portrayal.

In an unusual bit of casting, Brian Asawa sang the role of the bearded Baba the Turk. His androgenous appearance and seductive counter-tenor brought a wonderful sense of mystery to the role even though his voice was too light-weight for some of the heavier moments. Unfortunately, stage director John Cox made one of his few missteps at a crucial point for the character. When Baba removes her veil to reveal her beard and shock the assembled crowd, Cox had Asawa turn upstage blocking the view to the entire audience until the last moment of the scene, thus muting the effect and confounding the intent of the creators. Dale Travis’s stalwart, sturdily sung Trulove was an asset to the production, but Susan Nicely lacked the lower notes and necessary volume for Mother Goose. For the most part, John Cox directed The Rake’s Progress with a sure touch, guiding the cast and maintain the pace of the show. Aside from a few misjudged moments the staging suited the work and provided the able cast with a supportive framework.

Markus Stentz’s leadership in the pit was efficient and clean, though a few of the inner rhythms and intricate pacing challenges of the work didn’t always meld together as a whole. His attentiveness to the principals and ability to bring out the humor and verve in Stravinsky’s colorful score were solid assets.

The Rake’s Progress has never gained more than a tenuous foothold in the standard repertory for most opera companies. But a cast of principals like this and Hockney’s ever-fresh production, the opera continues to gain partisans in San Francisco.

Kelly Snyder



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