Nothing is as it seems in Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” presented by Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Stravinsky, whose savage material often shocked early 20th century audiences, wrote music of Mozartian elegance — but with gently dissonant twists unusual in neoclassic works — for this 1951 opera.
The tragicomic morality play’s story, based on William Hogarth’s famous 1735 etchings, is the exact opposite of “progress,” tracing the fall and descent into madness of the protagonist, the naive, gullible Tom Rakewell.
The opera’s seemingly simple arias and harpsichord-accompanied recitatives, with a complex, poetic libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, present great musical and theatrical challenges, particularly for students.
Yet in Thursday’s opening performance, the first of two before the program’s season ends with an Aug. 18 grand finale in the War Memorial Opera House, the pieces came together splendidly, once again demonstrating the prowess of Merola, one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious training centers for young singers. (The 61-year-old program is named for San Francisco Opera founder and first general director Gaetano Merola.)
Mark Morash, director of musical studies for San Francisco Opera Center, conducted the soloists, a powerful chorus of Merolini, a 32-piece orchestra and Merola apprentice coaches Annie Brook and Matthew Gemmill on harpsichord.
The busy, colorful staging — squeezed into a small space, with the orchestra replacing the first rows of seats in the theater — was to the credit of Robin Guarino, who directed the far-flung action fluidly, without breaks this opera usually requires.
The principal characters carry the weight of the complex action through the nearly three-hour long work: Christopher Oglesby sang Tom, the “Rake”; Meigui Zhang was Anne Trulove (a fitting name for a redeeming heroine); and Jacob Scharfman portrayed Nick Shadow, the Devil himself, tempting Tom with everything from the bearded Baba the Turk (soprano Anne Maguire) to a “sure-fire investment opportunity” that ruins Tom and legions of the greedy and gullible.
The three were perfectly balanced with precise musical performances and clear diction.
Oglesby, a tenor from Georgia, made the strangely naive and weak hero believable. His final scene — redemption before death — was deeply moving. Equal credit goes to Zhang, a Chinese soprano whose lyrical singing and appealing stage presence received well-deserved audience acclaim.
For Scharfman, a baritone from Boston, the challenge was to sing big, dramatic arias of seduction and threats while lurking about like the villain in “The Drunkard.” He earned top marks in all.
Among other performers, a great audience favorite was Utah tenor Addison Marlor. His Auctioneer, sometimes a bland role, evoked gales of laughter.
The Rake’s Progress
Presented by Merola Opera Program
Where: S.F. Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. Aug. 4
Tickets: $55 to $80
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.merola.org
Note: The Merola Grand Finale is at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 18 at the War Memorial Opera House; tickets are $25-$75