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When Having A Massive Budget Isn't A Bad Thing

December 5, 2007

I'm often turned off by big budget theatre / dance / musical / opera productions. The money frequently turns directors and designers into idiots. They see the dollar signs, and do crazy things like go on wild shopping sprees for 50-foot diamond encrusted replicas of The Sphinx for productions of Aida and hiring 101 pedigree pups to perform in a new musical version of 101 Dalmations. Their staging ideas get so big and hairy that they completely forget about coherence.

I'm happy to report that this isn't always the case. Last night, I attended the North American premiere of Robert Lepage's production of The Rake's Progress at SF Opera, Stravinsky and W. H. Auden's 1951 operatic riff on a Faustian theme inspired by William Hogarth's series of paintings and engravings entitled A Rake's Progress.

Not only was I engrossed by the orchestra's bright delivery of Stravinsky's angular neo-classical tinged score and the empathetic tragi-comic performances by tenor William Burden as Tom Rakewell, soprano Laura Aikin as Ann Trulove and baritone James Morris' Nick Shadow, but I was also completely moved by Lepage's mise-en-scene.

The staging has all the whistles and bells that one expects to see in a large-scale opera house. There is a mansion complete with full-sized swimming pool (into which a dancer dives), gorgeously-lit high-definition filmed backdrops with rolling clouds, a seedy back-alley with flickering neon signs and a vastly-populated Victorian-era saloon upon which dancers twirl. There are even a couple of full-sized vintage automobiles and an inflatable trailer (the kind that actors hang out in on movie sets) that balloons out from a hole in the ground like a mushroom cloud and eventually sails off into the rafters.

But the flashy staging elements never once upstage the storytelling. Visual motifs crop up again and again throughout the production, lending unity and coherence as well as catching us unawares. Lepage draws on the 1950s American aesthetic of James Dean films. The stage is populated by people in stetsons wandering around wide, open spaces, the openness of which is emphasized by "widescreen" backdrops throughout. A steel-mining drill pumps in the first scene, only to appear in modified form later on as part of a film-maker's apparatus. The repetition of visual motifs and the old-fashioned aesthetic gives the production a nostalgic, eternally-youthful air which jars creepily with the darkness of the Faustian tale. Lepage's conception of the story makes me think of America as a country whose spirited youthfulness has been squandered in vice and, as a result, has sold its soul and is consigned to hell.

The production plays until December 9. There are a couple of dates left. It's the best production I've seen at SF Opera to date. Go see it.

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