STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress / Hilde Güden, soprano (Anne Trulove); Eugene Conley, tenor (Tom Rakewell); Mack Harrell, baritone (Nick Shadow); Blanche Thebom, mezzo-soprano (Baba the Turk); Norman Scott, bass (Trulove); Martha Lipton, mezzo-soprano (Mother Goose); Paul Franke, tenor (Sellem); Lawrence Davidson, bass (Keeper); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Igor Stravinsky, conductor / Sony Classical 886445687965
Back on August 8, I posted a review of the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, prepared and conducted by Fritz Reiner. I commented that I generally liked the singing and the pacing of the opera very much with the exception of Hilde Güden’s unintelligible English and occasionally over-pushed high notes, but felt frustrated by the boxy mono broadcast sound and the fact that the Met audience applauded virtually anything resembling a high note, even if the music wasn’t finished yet.
Near the end of the review I suggested that collectors may “prefer the studio recording under Stravinsky’s direction,” but I didn’t check to see if it was currently available. Well, it is—in fact, it was reissued by Sony Classical in April 2016 using the original cover of the first LP issue. This is very good news because Naxos Historical’s own reissue of it is unavailable in the U.S. due to copyright restrictions.
By and large, the two performances are virtually identical, particularly in the pacing and shaping of the music, but of course the studio recording has much clearer sound. It also uses a harpsichord instead of a piano (conductor Reiner didn’t think a harpsichord could be heard in the old Met) and, possibly because she was singing in a recording studio and not trying to project her voice into the huge spaces of the Metropolitan, Güden doesn’t scream her high notes nearly as badly. Also, she seems to have work on her diction somewhat between February 18 (the date of the Met broadcast) and early March (the dates of the recording) with positive results. She’s still not crystal-clear, but you can actually make out at least a third of her words. In the broadcast, I could only make out about 10 or 12 of them throughout her entire role.
The choice of Güden still remains a bit of a mystery. Many years ago I read somewhere that when writing the opera, Stravinsky crafted the music to the sound in his ears of three of his favorite singers: soprano Eleanor Steber, tenor Jussi Björling and mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani. That doesn’t mean that he wanted Björling or Stignani to sing the roles of Tom and Baba, particularly the latter who had pretty awful English diction, only that he kept their timbres in mind when writing the roles. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf created the role of Anne Trulove in the 1951 world premiere performance, and her English was quite serviceable, but she wasn’t at the Met in the early ‘50s. Yet you ask yourself, Why not Steber? Two possible answers immediately pop up. One was that she was asked to sing the role but was either too busy or accepted and created havoc in rehearsals (Steber was notorious for being cruel and bitchy to her colleagues). The other—and, sadly, the more plausible—was that the Met Opera Board told Rudolf Bing that he must cast a famous European artist in one of the principal roles, and since Tom, Baba and Nick Shadow were extremely important for the audience to understand their words, it was Anne Trulove who was sacrificed to the Austrian Güden. Bitchy or not, Steber was right that throughout her Met career foreign sopranos were always being given preference over her in casting. She eventually got to sing many of the roles she wanted to by being selected for the “B” casts, but was rarely given the roles in the top-flight productions.
But as I say, someone seems to have coached Güden fairly well between the premiere and the recording session, with good results. Possibly it was Stravinsky himself, no master linguist to be sure but one who understood the importance of clear diction in an opera performance. Note this photo of Stravinsky rehearsing Güden in the part.
The other niggling complaint that critics often have of this performance is that they think Mack Harrell was too jovial and not menacing enough as Nick Shadow, but remember that Stravinsky attended all of the Met rehearsals leading up to the premiere and apparently had no complaints. Moreover, if you want to split hairs about it, Nick Shadow is supposed to be genial and jovial almost throughout the opera. Only after Tom guesses the three cards and Nick turns him insane should there be any signs of nastiness. In addition, Harrell was not exactly known for playing villains; like Lawrence Tibbett, he was a jovial, warm-hearted man by nature. Personally, I like Harrell’s Nick very much indeed.
The other two gems of this performance are Eugene Conley’s Tom and Blanche Thebom’s Baba. Seldom, if ever, have I heard these roles performed to such perfection, histrionically as well as vocally. Mezzo-soprano students should study Thebom’s Baba very closely; in addition to her superb vocal control, she uses shade and nuance to give us a believable and fully-rounded character. Regina Sarfaty in the stereo remake by Stravinsky is a big nothing, vocally as well as dramatically, as is almost every other Baba I’ve heard. Other Babas tend to overplay their hand, making a silly caricature of her, which simply does not work. Yes, Baba is a bit naïve, marrying Tom without much in the way of familiarity with him, but she gives him her full love and is badly mistreated by him. She is a victim of his momentary whim, not a buffoon, and shouldn’t be played as such.
Conley’s Tom is not quite as nuanced dramatically, yet I’ve never heard another tenor do the role as full justice as he does. In his hands (and voice) Tom is headstrong, impetuous, greedy without having any real plan for success. He typifies young men of many generations; think of today’s youngsters who think the world owes them a living even though the reality is that they live in their parents’ basements. He is throughly believable every time he gripes about something: “I wish I had money!” “I wish I were happy!” etc. He is the perennial whiner waiting for his participation trophy. Nick Shadow, whom he instinctively trusts without knowing why, is his virtual-reality Sugar Daddy. That’s another reason why I feel it is imperative to play Nick in a friendly, jovial manner, as Harrell does.
All in all, then, this is a “personality plus” rendition of Stravinsky’s opera. Listeners who don’t much care for it because it doesn’t have good enough Tunes aren’t going to like it much better here, but for the rest of us it’s a revelation. In closing I’d like to add that although I never thought as little of Stravinsky’s conducting abilities as other critics, I admit that he wasn’t exactly on the level of a master like Toscanini or Reiner. Thus I’d have to say that by and large this recording reflects Reiner’s work as much if not more than Stravinsky’s, just as the 1930 recording of Tannhäuser represents the view of Toscanini, who rehearsed and conducted the live performances, as much as that of Karl Elmendorff, who actually made the recording. It’s not a big point, but it is important to keep in mind since the world premiere was such a mess that Stravinsky had to slow almost the entire opera down in order for the orchestra and chorus to follow what he wanted.
By and large, the Met orchestra and chorus plays over their heads here. They are superb whereas in most contemporary broadcasts of standard repertoire they sound mundane or scrappy at best. I think Reiner hired some ringers for the orchestra, possibly from the New York Philharmonic or Philadelphia Orchestras, to bolster the winds (always important in Stravinsky’s music) and eliminated many of the foreign-born singers in the chorus, because their English diction is quite good and they are almost consistently in tune and on the beat. In short, this is an excellent recording of the opera and one that will stand up to repeated listenings.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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