Chapter 1. Garden of Trulove House, Spring.
As the opera opens, the young lovers Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove enjoy an idyllic spring afternoon.
However, Anne's father, Trulove, is worried.
In youth we fancy we are wise,
But time hath shown,
Alas, too often and too late,
We have not known
The hearts of others or our own.
Trulove tells Tom he has arranged for a job for him, but Tom refuses the offer, assuring Trulove that his daughter shall not marry a poor man. Trulove responds sharply, So he be honest, she may take a poor husband if she choose, but I am resolved she shall never marry a lazy one.
Tom sees no point in working hard for someone else since everything is predestined If Fortune favours him, he is confident he'll achieve wealth without actually having to work for it. (Here I stand . . . Since it is not by merit – Recitative and Aria).
Tom makes the first of three wishes – for money – a wish that is no sooner uttered than granted. A stranger appears, introduces himself as Nick Shadow and announces that an uncle, of whom Tom has never heard, has died and left Tom a fortune (Fair lady, gracious gentlemen).
Nick tells Tom the two of them must depart for London immediately to collect the inheritance. When Tom asks Nick what wages he expects to receive, Nick assures him that they'll settle up in a year and a day.
Tom bids farewell to Anne and her father, promising to send for them as soon as his affairs are settled. As Tom and Nick depart, Nick turns to the audience and announces, The progress of a rake begins.
Chapter 2. London – Interior of Mother Goose's Brothel
Tom, Nick, and Mother Goose drink together, surrounded by whores and Roaring Boys (gangs of upper-class thugs). As the Roaring Boys sing boisterously of the delights of brawling, the whores recount their own conquests. Together the boys and the girls toast Venus and Mars.
Shadow and Mother Goose prompt Tom to recite the philosophy he's been learning from Nick, and he responds in a monotone reminiscent of Gregorian chant, praising the selfish pursuit of Beauty and Pleasure. But when asked to define Love, he becomes upset (That precious word is like a fiery coal, It burns my lips, strikes terror to my soul).
As a cuckoo clock coos one, Tom pleads to leave before it is too late. Nick turns the clock back and it coos twelve.
See. Time is yours. The hours obey your pleasure.
Fear not. Enjoy. You may repent at leisure.
Tom sings desolately of love, lamenting the vow he has broken and begging the goddess to be there for him to call upon when he is dying (Love, too frequently betrayed).
As Mother Goose claims him for herself and leads him off, the whores and roaring boys sing a lilting folk song (The sun is bright, the grass is green. Lanterloo, lanterloo! ). Nick raises his glass in an ironic toast (Sweet dreams, my master . . . For when you wake, you die.)
Chapter 3. Trulove Garden, late Autumn
Anne suspects Tom has betrayed her (Recitative and aria – No word from Tom . . . Quietly, night ). Although she hesitates to leave her father, she decides that Tom is weak and needs her help. She resolves to follow him to the city:
I go, I go to him . . .
If Love be love
It will not alter.
Though it be shunned,
Or be forgotten, . . .
Time cannot alter, cannot, cannot, cannot alter
A loving heart, an ever loving heart.
Chapter 4. Interior of Tom's London Townhouse, Winter
Tom is bored and jaded with his idle life in London. Despite all his wealth, he is disenchanted with the hectic city life (Vary the song, O London, change!). He makes a second wish – for happiness.
Nick appears and persuades Tom to marry Baba the Turk, the famous bearded lady, arguing that happiness comes from acting freely rather than being a slave to duty or pleasure. Tom perks up at the idea, and the two laughingly plan Tom's courtship of Baba (My tale shall be told both by young and by old).
Chapter 5. London street, outside Tom's house
Anne waits apprehensively outside Tom's house.
O heart, be stronger . . .
Hear thou or not, merciful Heaven, ease thou or not my way;
A love that is sworn, sworn before Thee
Can plunder Hell, can plunder Hell of its prey
As she summons her courage, a sedan chair arrives and Tom steps out. Dismayed and agitated at the sight of Anne, he insists he is unworthy of her and urges her to go home.
They are interrupted by Baba who is waiting to be helped from her sedan chair. Tom explains that Baba is his wife, and he and Anne mourn their love while Baba expresses her vexation. Once Anne has left, Baba and Tom parade grandly toward the house. When Baba asks Tom who that girl was, he replies, only a milkmaid.
Chapter 6. Inside Tom's Townhouse
Tom sulks in his room, which is now cluttered with all kinds of bric-à-brac. Baba gives a running commentary on each object and who gave it to her (As I was saying, both brothers wore moustaches). When she tries to coax Tom to cheer up, he pushes her roughly away, and she launches into a tantrum, smashing things and jealously reminding him that Anne will never be his wife (Scorned! Abused! Neglected! Baited!).
Fed up, Tom takes off his wig and plops it over Baba's head; she freezes and remains still for the rest of the scene.
Despondent, Tom falls asleep. Nick enters, wheeling in a fantastic baroque machine, and demonstrates how, through a hidden compartment, the machine can appear to turn a broken piece of china into a loaf of bread . . . or vice versa. Tom wakes, having dreamt of a wondrous machine that will turn stones into bread. He utters – and Nick grants – his third wish. Even as Tom aspires to end world hunger and to once again be worthy of Anne, Nick assures him that he has already started marketing the machine to potential investors.
The ruinous venture has ended in Tom's bankruptcy, and all his possessions are to be auctioned off. Citizens arrive to inspect the loot and speculate as to Tom's whereabouts, while Sellem the auctioneer directs the bidding. All sorts of wonders are auctioned off, including a stuffed auk, a mounted pike, and eventually, Baba herself, who all this time has remained motionless, frozen in time. As she is sold, Baba picks up her tantrum precisely where she left off, this time venting her rage at the crowd for messing with her things.
When Anne enters, Baba calms down and urges her to help Tom:
You love him, seek to set him right:
He's but a shuttle-headed lad:
Not quite a gentleman, nor quite
Completely vanquished by the bad:
Who knows what care and love might do?.
She warns Anne against Nick Shadow. (I can tell who in that pair Is poisoned victim and who snake.)
Anne determines to go to Tom, while Baba decides to return to her life on the stage.
Chapter 7. Churchyard
A year and a day after their first meeting, Nick leads Tom to a graveyard, where he claims Tom's soul as payment for his services. He points out Tom's waiting grave and tells him to choose how he will die. Tom pleads for mercy, and Nick agrees to play a game of cards to decide Tom's fate. If Tom names three cards correctly, he will be free.
The game is accompanied solely by the menacing sound of a harpsichord, with the right hand and left hand in different keys. Making one last wish for Love and Anne, Tom successfully names each card. Even as Nick sinks, defeated, into the grave (I burn! I burn! I freeze!), he has the power to condemn Tom to insanity.
As dawn comes, Tom is alone in the churchyard, quite mad, singing to himself in a childlike voice (With roses crowned, I sit on ground; Adonis is my name).
Chapter 8. Bedlam
Believing he is Adonis, Tom anticipates that Venus, Queen of Love will visit him. The madmen mock his delusions. Anne arrives, and Tom, thinking she is Venus, begs forgiveness. Anne assures him of her love and they share a brief moment of timeless love and forgiveness:
Space cannot alter, nor time our love abate;
Here has no words for Absence or Estrangement
Nor Now a notion of Almost or Too Late
Anne sings him to sleep with a lullaby (Gently, little boat). Her father arrives and she quietly leaves.
When Tom awakes to find Anne gone, he cries out for Venus and dies. The madmen sing a mourning chorus (Weep for Adonis).
The principal characters expound on the moral of the piece: Anne warns that not every young man has an Anne to rescue him; Baba comments, Good or bad, all men are mad; Tom warns young men not to delude themselves; Nick sulks about his loss of power (Many insist I do not exist. At times I wish I didn't). All agree that the devil finds work for idle hands.
At all times, in all lands
Beneath the moon and sun,
This proverb has proved true,
Since Eve went out with Adam:
For idle hands
And hearts and minds
The Devil finds
A work to do,
A work, dear Sir, fair Madam,
For you and you.
The Rake's Progess is a masterpiece by two towering figures of the 20th century: the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky, and the British poet Wystan Hugh Auden.
It was inspired by the 18th century equivalent of a comic book: a series of eight satirical paintings created by William Hogarth in 1733, which Stravinsky saw in 1947 at an exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute. The series, called A Rake's Progress, told the story of a young man who abandons his pregnant fiancée, squanders his inheritance on high living, gambling, and prostitution, marries a rich old woman, and ends up first in debtor's prison, and then in Bedlam (Bethlehem Hospital), London's famous mental asylum.
The English artist William Hogarth (1697 to 1764) lived at a time when artwork was becoming increasingly commercialised and when a new literary form – the novel – was coming into vogue (Hogarth was good friends with Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, a novel about another rakish character).
Rejecting classical subjects for a clear-eyed, satiric look at the foibles of his time, Hogarth came up with the idea of telling contemporary stories through a series of illustrations – a sort of graphic novel. The best known of these series were A Rake's Progress, A Harlot's Progress (country girl Moll Hackabout is lured into prostitution and dies of syphilis), and Marriage à-la-mode (an upper-class marriage is broken apart with affairs, syphilis, murder, and suicide).
In each case Hogarth painted the series and then recreated the illustrations as engravings to be published as prints. Because they could be reproduced in quantity, these engravings were widely circulated and became wildly popular throughout England. This was populist art with a moral message, brim full of wit, pathos, and melodrama.
Hogarth has been called the inventor of the comic strip and the father of the modern editorial cartoon. His illustrated stories remain as rich and full of action as any of today's graphic novels.
When Stravinsky saw Hogarth's illustrations for A Rake's Progress, he knew he'd found the subject for an opera. Stravinsky's friend Aldous Huxley (best known as the author of Brave New World) suggested the great Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden as librettist. Without consulting Stravinsky, Auden brought in Chester Kallman as a collaborator. Kallman was Auden's faithless lover and himself a fine model for a rake; the two would go on to co-write libretti for other composers and to translate both The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni into English.
Composer-librettist collaborations are fraught with challenges, but this was one of the happier ones. It may have helped that Auden knew his place: early on he wrote to Stravinsky:
As (a) you have thought about the Rake's Progress for some time, and (b) it is the librettist's job to satisfy the composer, not the other way round, I should be most grateful if you could let me have any ideas you may have formed about characters, plot, etc.
Stravinksy later recalled the process of creating the story:
Early the next morning, primed by coffee and whisky, we began work on the Rake's Progress. Starting with a hero, a heroine, and a villain, and deciding that these people should be a tenor, a soprano, and a bass, we proceeded to invent a series of scenes leading up to the final scene in Bedlam that was already fixed in our minds. We followed Hogarth closely at first and until our own story began to assume a different significance.
In March 1948, Auden and Kallman delivered what Stravinsky called surely one of the most beautiful of libretti. The composition of the music occupied the next three years. The result, in the words of composer Zeke Hecker, was one of the few opera scores . . . that are really love letters to the libretto. The opera premiered at Teatro la Fenice in Venice on September 11, 1951, conducted by the composer.
Stravinsky and Auden grafted the legend of Faust onto Hogarth's Rake, adding the character of Nick Shadow to guide Tom into the brothels and gambling dens of sleazy old London. But Tom remains unexpectedly innocent and, at heart, faithful to Anne. As Baba explains to Anne,
He's but a shuttle-headed lad:
Not quite a gentleman, nor quite
Completely vanquished by the bad:
Who knows what care and love might do?
Tom Rakewell is every callow, overconfident, impulsive youth who ever stumbled upon love and ruin. There's a little of Tom in every brother, son, and sweetheart who is fretted over by the people who care and fear for him. Despite his foolishness, there remains enough native goodness in Tom that he almost deserves Anne Trulove, who comes from a long lineage of perfect, faithful loving Griseldas. Anne is pure and loyal and brave. And any soprano would wage battle with tooth and claw to have the chance to sing her music.
Rake brings us, in addition to its young lovers, a panoply of unforgettable characters, including Mother Goose, the brothel keeper who snaps up Tom for herself; the suave, sinister Nick Shadow, who with Mephistophelean charm propels Tom into ruin; the auctioneer Sellem, who presides over opera's wackiest auction (this ne plus ultra of auctions); and most exotic of all, Baba the Turk, the bearded lady from the circus, whom Tom marries – just to prove he can.
Once one gets over the utter weirdness of seeing a bearded lady in the opera, one cannot but be charmed by Baba, whether she's graciously greeting her adoring public, boring Tom silly with an inventory of her knick-knacks, smashing crockery in a rage, or generously informing Anne that Tom still loves her. Voluble and volatile, Baba is also refreshingly honest and sublimely outspoken. And she gets to sing a patter song (As I was saying, both brothers wore moustaches) that is as divinely silly as anything by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Musicologist David Schiff says:
Baba was Auden's way of embodying his love for the genre of opera in all its glorious absurdity. Baba breathes the spirit of opera itself... Morality is fine, she seems to say, but could we have some entertainment, please?