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“Rake’s Progress” to Bring Ambition, Modern Opera to Agassiz


Not many operas include the auctioning of a bearded lady as a legitimate plot point. Happily, the Harvard College Opera is performing one of the few that does: “The Rake’s Progress.”

In the 1951 opera, Tom Rakewell, a young man of dubious moral character, heads to London to sort out some financial affairs, leaving behind his loving, virtuous fiancée, Anne Trulove. He is accompanied by his newfound manservant, Nick Shadow, who encourages Tom to forget his obligations and lose himself fully to the carnal delights that London has to offer. After Tom fails to return from London, an undaunted Anne Trulove rides off in search of her enthralled fiancé, hoping to redeem him from the life of vice that threatens to claim him. Chaos ensues, with magical bread-conjuring machines, insane asylums and Faustian pacts all playing a role in the opera’s progression.

According to director Joule P. Voelz ’17, the opera is traditionally set in late 19th-century London. However, the HCO’s production will take place in a less clearly delineated temporal sphere, melding visual cues from different time periods in order to achieve a certain surreal, dislocated feel. HCO will also work a David Lynch-inspired neo-noir aesthetic into the themes of vice and decadence that permeate the opera, adding a menacing edge to the show.

The opera itself, written by noted composer Igor Stravinsky, is musically very complex and promises to push both the cast and the supporting musicians to the very limits of their ability. “No Word From Tom,” an aria to be sung by Anne (Asia T. Stewart ’18), is an example of the musically demanding nature of the score. “It’s a ten-minute tour de force for any soprano of any age, let alone a nineteen-year-old,” musical director Jake H. Wilder-Smith ’16 says. “There’s a century of opera in that aria.”

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“The Rake’s Progress” is also noteworthy for its libretto, written by renowned poet and essayist W. H. Auden and poet Chester Kallman. “HCO’s committed to doing things in English, but you do lose something when you do an Italian opera in English,” Wilder-Smith says. Auden’s skill as a librettist allows the opera to be self-aware without being smug or ironic and allows it to retain both intensity and nimbleness.

HCO’s decision to perform “The Rake’s Progress” is an ambitious one that will, with a little bit of luck, bring out the best in its enormously talented cast and crew while allowing viewers to enjoy an acclaimed modern opera. “The Rake’s Progress” will run from Feb. 3 to Feb. 6 at the Agassiz Theater.

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