When you compose an opera based on William Hogarth's famous and guardedly beloved series, The Rake's Progress, you build in a certain expectation. Spectators in large numbers will have the highly populated depictions of louche English 18th-century behavior in mind as they enter. They could assume that's what they'll be seeing.
Jonathan Miller's 1997 production of The Rake's Progress, revived at the Metropolitan Opera House for the first time since 2003, and around for only two additional performances, eschews the look. As designed by Peter J. Davidson, it goes for something entirely different. The opening scene of a tall house with treetops for a roof, and standing against a blue sky with a couple stationary clouds, is reminiscent not of Hogarth, but of René Magritte.
With the subsequent nine scenes and an epilogue presented in similar settings, the decadence that can almost be sniffed in the Hogarth images that inspired composer Igor Stravinsky and librettists W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman has been replaced by an antiseptic environment, this despite the stuffed animals decorating Tom Rakewell's swanky apartment.
Even when the chorus members arrive in sequences that alternately conjure the 1950s, 1940s, 1930 and 1920, in that reverse chronological order, they appear more like stick figures than dissolute participants. (Judy Levin designed the costumes). The same goes for the asylum scene, which doesn't look too much, as it might have, like dingy Bedlam. It's one thing to update but another to contradict.
But while the look of this Rake's Progress is at odds with Stravinsky's intentions -- unlike the David Hockney production, which modernizes Hogarth but doesn't dismiss him -- James Levine's conducting is surely what Stravinsky, who led the opera's1951 opening, would want. As the maestro always has, he honors the composer's neo-classical intentions throughout, so that the various predecessors to whom Stravinsky alludes -- Handel right off the bat(on) -- are heard crisply and with the proper Stravinsky jangle.
The singing is strong, for the most part. As Tom, the roundish but thoroughly athletic Paul Appleby acquits himself well. Scampering about in the early sections and even leaping mercurially onto a table at one moment, he goes into the rake's decline impressively. Gerald Finley, bearded as Nick Shadow, gives an impeccable performance, none more so than when convincing Tom that he should defy all convention and marry Baba the Turk. (Why Tom doesn't twig to the menace of a character whose surname is Shadow is never explained, of course.)
As Anne Trulove, Layla Claire has a few shrill moments when going for the high notes, but she, too, sings persuasively. (Why costumer Levin has dressed her for much of the action in a suit resembling a nun's contemporary dress, is another matter.) In his Met debut as Anne Trulove's censorious father, the bass Brindley Sherratt, makes a worthy impression.
Stephanie Blythe, outrageously and hilariously garbed by Levin, is her usual glorious self. Whether she actually gets right the second-act aria in which she gabs at Tom to the point of his combustion isn't clear, but so what? The quartets and quintets are rendered effectively.
Speaking of enunciation: It's known that Auden wasn't happy with the way Stravinsky set Kallman's and his libretto on the music. On the other hand, he knew that Kallman and he were handing his poetic handiwork over to Stravinsky. What did he think was going to happen?
By the way, watching Nick Shadow whispering poisonous somethings into Tom Rakewell's ear is akin to observing Iago influencing Othello, or Otello and Mephistopheles misdirecting Faust. It's another absorbing instance of a literary and operatic theme: The id corrupting the ego. Irresistible, isn't it?