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Stravinsky: Birthday Boy Disliked Opera but Wrote (one) Anyway

By Galegirl

Today, June 17, marks the 129th anniversary of the birth of Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky, who is widely regarded in the operasphere for his revolutionary compositions despite harboring a lack of fondness for opera.

At the tender age of 31, Stravinsky said on record,  “I dislike opera.” He went on to explain that music can be “married to gesture or to words” but not both without committing “bigamy.”

Stravinsky: birthday boy disliked opera but wrote (one) anyway

The Tavern Scene, Hogarth's Rake's Progress

In spite of his dislike of opera, he wrote several operatic hybrids that fall somewhere between opera and ballet (The Nightengale, Mavra, Oedipus Rex, Renard, Perspephone, The Flood). But he composed only one pure opera in three acts, The Rake’s Progress, inspired by a series of prints by artist William Hogarth. Hogarth’s eight paintings, created in 1735,  show the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a spendthrift heir of a rich merchant. Rakewell comes to London and squanders all his money on decadent living including prostitution and gambling, is imprisoned, and ultimately loses his senses and is committed to Bedlam.

The Rake’s Progress that has been labeled a difficult opera because of its complex, multi-tiered score. Its quirky music borrows from classic tonal harmonies of  Mozart and Monteverdi. Of course, it wouldn’t be Stravinsky if it didn’t interject dissonance that catches you by surprise and those trademark off-rhythms.

Stravinsky: birthday boy disliked opera but wrote (one) anyway

Glyndebourne's Rake in 2010 / photo by Mike Hoban

A quick search on Bachtrack shows numerous stagings of Stravinksy’s The Nightengale (Le Rossignol)  in the coming months. No major house is currently mounting Rake’s though Glyndebourne Opera Festival did a critically acclaimed version last summer.

The Rake’s Progress, with a libretto by W. H. Auden, premiered in Venice in 1951. It is considered the defining work of Stravinsky’s neo-classic period.  The  Metropolitan Opera first presented it in 1953.  In its first season in 1957, Sante Fe Opera did the work with Stravinsky in attendance, marking the beginning of his long association with the company, including a 1962 Stravinsky Festival the Opera House staged in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday.

Here’s a clip from director Robert Lepage‘s spirited restaging of The Rake’s Progress set in decadent Las Vegas rather than 18th century London:


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