Rake’s Progress, The
  • Igor Stravinsky. Opera in three acts. 1951.
  • Libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, after Hogarth.
  • First performance at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 11th September 1951.
CHARACTERS

Tom Rakewell

tenor

Nick Shadow

baritone

Trulove

bass

Anne Trulove, his daughter

soprano

Mother Goose

mezzo-soprano

Baba the Turk

mezzo-soprano

Sellem, an auctioneer

tenor

Keeper of the Madhouse

bass

Tom Rakewell and Anne, together in her father’s garden, sing of their love, and her father suggests honest employment in a city counting-house for his future son-in-law. Tom, however, has other ends in view, about to be realised, when Nick Shadow suddenly appears, claiming to have been the servant of an uncle of Tom’s who has died and left his nephew an unexpected fortune. Tom engages Shadow as his servant, with wages to be settled after a year and a day, and the two of them set out at once for London. Here Shadow introduces Tom to extravagant and licentious company, drinking together with whores and roaring-boys at the brothel of Mother Goose, who claims the company of Tom for the night. Meanwhile Anne resolves to seek Tom out, having heard no news of him. In London, life for Tom seems empty, but Shadow suggests that he should marry Baba the Turk, a bearded lady whose appearance at St Giles’s Fair has caused a sensation. Tom accepts the proposal, which will surely win him fame. Anne arrives before Tom’s house, as he returns with Baba the Turk and all her strange paraphernalia, and leaves in dismay. The garrulous bearded lady makes life difficult for Tom and he silences her by putting a wig back-to-front over her head. Shadow proposes another scheme, a machine to turn stones into bread, which Tom can win fame by manufacturing. The third act brings Tom’s ruin, his possessions sold at auction, and Baba now urging Anne to save him. Shadow, with Tom at night in a graveyard, now claims his wages, offering him a choice of death by rope, poison, knife or gun. A chance remains for Tom if he can guess three cards correctly, as they are dealt. Inspired by thoughts of Anne, Tom correctly guesses the Queen of Hearts, then, as a spade falls on a nearby grave, the deuce of spades, followed again, frustrating Shadow’s attempted trickery, by the Queen of Hearts. Shadow is defeated, but Tom loses his reason, now imagining himself to be Adonis, visited in Bedlam by Anne, his Venus. As she leaves, he calls out and dies, leaving the cast to point the moral of the work in an epilogue.

Stravinsky’s opera was inspired by the series of paintings by Hogarth of the same name, illustrations of the road to ruin. Auden collaborated with his friend Chester Kallman on the libretto, which they completed early in 1948. The music was completed by April 1951, to be produced in Venice the following September. The composer follows classical Mozartian forms, with due allusion to operatic developments of the 19th century, but writes music that is always recognisably his own in its melodies, harmonies and instrumentation, the whole the acme of 20th-century neoclassicism. The libretto combines the subject of Hogarth’s satire with Mephistophelean legend, as the Devil, Nick Shadow, leads Tom, like some latter-day Faust, into cynical excess.