The Progress of a Rake: a Tale Illuminated with Excerpts
The opera opens with a brief fanfare.
Scene one opens in the garden of Father Trulove’s country house. Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell sing a pastoral duet of innocent county love, punctuated by Father Trulove’s worries for the future of the relationship. He does not trust Tom completely. Trulove speaks privately to Tom, offering him gainful employment with a trusted friend in London. Tom hesitates to accept, as he has better plans in mind. Trulove exits into his home after expressing his distrust of Tom’s work ethic. Tom sings an aria, Here I stand
in which he shares his dreams for wealth and entrusts his future to Fortune. Tom wishes for money, and the mysterious stranger Nick Shadow appears and calls for Tom to bring Anne and Trulove to hear the news of a surprise inheritance. All sing their gratitude for this miraculous turn of events, and then Nick encourages Tom to accompany him to London to grow this windfall into true wealth. Nick pledges to serve Tom for a year and a day, at which time the two will settle their accounts. Tom promises to send for Anne and her father as soon as his affairs are settled, and as Nick and Tom depart, Nick announces “The PROGRESS OF A RAKE begins.”
Scene two takes place in the brothel run by Mother Goose. Tom, Nick, and Mother Goose sit drinking, surrounded by licentious men and whores. The crowd sings a toast to Mars and Venus. Tom shares his new creed, taught to him by Nick, to abandon all earlier moral teachings and live his life according to the whims of Nature. Tom has a moment of doubt, and fears it may be too late for him, but Nick turns back the clock to show that Tom may “repent at leisure.” Tom then is initiated into the rites of manhood by Mother Goose while the whores and roaring boys enjoy a randy version of a children’s game.
Act one concludes with a bravura scene for Anne alone. She enters her garden dressed for travel, and thinks sadly that Tom has forgotten her. She asks the moon to watch over Tom, even though he seems to have abandoned his promise. After a brief moment of hesitation, she prays for God to watch over Tom and to support her father after she leaves. She departs for London, believing in the power of her love to triumph over worldly temptations.
Act two scene one opens with Tom and Nick in the morning room of Tom’s house in London. The pleasures and sounds of London have already grown tiresome to Tom, and he begs for some variety. VARY THE SONG Tom makes a second wish, this time wishing for happiness, and Nick appears, presenting a broadsheet for a fair exhibit. He suggests that the woman depicted on the advertisement would make a suitable wife for Tom and would help Tom free himself from Virtue, Passion and Reason. Tom is energized by this prospect, and dresses for courtship. Once presentable, Tom leaves with Nick to pursue this new project.
Scene two takes place on the darkened street in front of Tom’s home. Anne enters, hesitant and fearful, questioning her choice to come to London.
She is startled by the appearance of servants carrying strangely shaped, wrapped packages, and then a sedan chair appears. Tom exits the chair and is surprised to see Anne. He tells her to return home and forget about him, that he is no longer worthy of her love. Anne is shocked when a female voice, that of Tom’s new wife Baba, is heard from the sedan chair. Tom and Anne mourn the loss of their love, while Baba expresses her indignation at Tom’s treatment of her. Anne exits, downcast, and Baba, her face hidden by a veil, ceremoniously descends from the conveyance to join Tom. Townspeople rush onto stage, excited at the presence of the celebrity Baba the Turk. She greets her public, uncovering her face to reveal a magnificent beard.
Scene three returns us to the morning room of Tom’s home, now cluttered with mysterious stuffed animals, minerals, and exotic objets d’art, the contents of those mysterious packages from the previous scene. Baba chatters on about all the gifts she has received from dignitaries while Tom mopes, having returned to his earlier malaise. Furious at being ignored, Baba rages at Tom until he can no longer tolerate her.
He suddenly covers her, mid-sentence, with a drape, to find some measure of quiet. Nick arrives and demonstrates in a Pantomime an invention guaranteed to increase Tom’s wealth. It is a machine with the capability to transform any object into bread. Tom sees this machine as the answer to his problems. In providing bread for the impoverished, Tom hopes to once again be worthy of Anne’s love. Nick marks Tom as a fool he may exploit, and encourages Tom to invest in this foolish scheme. Tom eagerly agrees, and rushes off with Nick, abandoning Baba.
Act three scene one returns to the morning room, now covered with cobwebs and dust. Baba is still seated at the table, motionless and draped as she was before. The room is full of respectable townsfolk singing of the economic ruin of many of the wealthy, including Tom Rakewell. Anne enters, seeking Tom in the crowd. The Auctioneer, Sellem, appears, and we see that Tom’s possessions are to be sold to settle his bills.
The crowd bids excitedly on a stuffed auk, a bust, a palm tree, and finally, a mysterious covered object. Upon final bid, the object is revealed to be Baba, who carries on with her earlier aria as if no time has passed. Baba encourages Anne to find Tom and try again to redeem him, and makes plans to pursue a life on the stage. The voices of Nick and Tom are heard in the distance singing a ballad song, and Anne, bolstered by the words of Baba and Sellem, rushes off to Tom’s side.
Scene two: Tom and Nick enter a graveyard. A year and a day has passed since Nick joined Tom’s service, and now it is time for Tom to pay his wage. Tom begs for time, since he is impoverished, but Nick insists it is Tom’s soul he wants for remuneration. Nick offers Tom a game of chance, with Tom’s soul on the line. Tom wins the first two rounds, but hesitates before the final deciding hand. Hearing Anne’s voice off-stage, Tom regains a measure of faith in the power of love, and wins the final round with the Queen of Hearts. Nick rages at the loss of Tom’s soul, but as he descends into the grave he had prepared for Tom, he curses Tom with insanity.
The final scene of the opera takes place in the madhouse known as Bedlam. Tom sings an invitation to Venus, the goddess of Love, while being harangued by his fellow inmates. An asylum keeper brings Anne to Tom, and he welcomes her as Venus to his Adonis. She forgives him and sings a comforting lullaby as he rests his head in her lap.
Tom surrenders to the peace of Death as the inmates sing a dirge. All characters return to the stage to sing a brief moralizing epilogue, warning the audience to learn from Tom’s tragic story. “For idle hands and hearts and minds, the Devil finds a work to do.”
Materials prepared by Dr. Carol Anderson