REVIEW: “The Rake’s Progress” is a Feast for the Eyes and Ears

Tom Rakewell (Ben Bliss) falls captive to Mother Goose’s ladies. © T Charles Erickson

By Landry Harlan
BU News Service

The artist is present in Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “The Rake’s Progress” currently running at the Cutler Majestic Theater. Igor Stravinsky, the opera’s composer, wanders the stage and interacts with his creation throughout. He is silent, save for two words he utters at the climax that alters the fate of a main character.

It is a curious artistic decision by director Allegra Libonati, intermittently interesting, often distracting. It’s meant to parallel the odyssey of Stravinsky and his lead, Tom Rakewell (Ben Bliss, a standout in his first BLO role). And what an odyssey it is, including appearances by a bearded lady, an auctioneer in drag and even the Devil himself, dressed in Hell’s finest velvet suit and emblazoned dress shoes.

Nick Shadow (Kevin Burdette) forces Tom Rakewell (Ben Bliss) into a life or death card game. © T Charles Erickson

In “Progress,” Rakewell leaves the idyllic suburban life (e.g., he’s first seen inside an inflatable swimming pool) and his loving fiancee, Anne, for the temptations of the city after Nick Shadow (Kevin Burdette, stealing every scene he’s in) tells him he’s inherited a mysterious fortune. As soon as he arrives, Rakewell is swallowed up in the neon sensuality of Mother Goose’s brothel, with props and set design right out of the 1950s.

Stravinsky’s score gets darker and more dissonant as Rakewell spirals into sex, stardom and self-loathing. Love, as usual, is the only power that can break the spell. Anne Truelove (Anya Matanovic) sets off to rescue him, a nice reprieve, as usually it is the other way around.

The highs of “Progress” come from it’s style, ravishing and bursting with the whole color wheel. It’s magical, and the opera even contains a few sleights of hand performed by Shadow. Then there’s the cast that could jump right off the Majestic stage onto the Met’s. They sing with the ease of someone who’s performed the opera many times over, not just a couple shows. Ben Bliss is destined to be a star, at turns cocky and vulnerable with just a slight change of vibrato.

Igor Stravinsky (Yury Yanowsky) feels the weight of criticism. © T Charles Erickson

The lows, which I emphasize are few (see this show!), were the repetitious imagery and themes of how fame and riches corrupt. It looked like candy and went down like it too, delicious in the moment but the flavor doesn’t last long after the curtain drops. As for Stravinsky, perhaps he shouldn’t have been resurrected. His fame obsession mirrors Rakewell, but when you have competing journeys, someone must win out and Rakewell’s was far more engaging.

Despite its flaws, “Progress’” vibrancy, commanding imagery and sublime performances are gems to be treasured. Living in Boston may not have the innocence of the country Stravinsky idolizes, but this is a temptation worth giving into.

Performances of “The Rake’s Progress” continue Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Students can purchase discounted $30 tickets by calling the Box Office at (617) 542-6772. A limited number of $20 student rush tickets are also available 90 minutes before each performance.

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