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The Rake's Progress Opera Synopsis

The Story of Igor Stravinsky's Opera


Composer: Igor Stravinsky

Premiered: September 11, 1951 - Teatro La Fenice, Venice

Other Popular Opera Synopses:
Rossini's Le Comte Ory, Rossini's Barber of Seville, Strauss' Elektra, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Verdi's Rigoletto, & Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Setting of The Rake's Progress:
Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress takes place in 18th century England.

The Story of The Rake's Progress

The Rake's Progress, ACT 1
Outside in the yard of her father's country home, Anne Trulove and her suitor, Tom Rakewell, converse about spring. Anne's father doubts Tom's intentions to marry his daughter, and sends Anne inside in order to have a private conversation with her fiancé. Mr. Trulove has arranged an accounting job for Tom, and he asks Tom to accept the position. Tom proudly declines, and Mr. Trulove leaves. In the background, a stranger appears, lurking and listening. Left alone, Tom affirms his desire to live by his wits, to trust in luck, and to enjoy life. Upon further thought, he wishes for money, too. At that moment, the stranger quickly introduces himself to Tom as Nick Shadow. Shadow has come bearing news that Tom's old forgotten uncle has died and left a great sum of money to Tom. As Shadow delivers the life-changing information, Anne and her father come out of the house. Mr. Trulove insists that Tom accompany Shadow back to London to sort and settle the inheritance. Shadow offers to be Tom's servant, which Tom reluctantly accepts. Both men set out to London after Tom promises to write to Anne the moment everything is settled.

Now in London, Shadow persuades Tom into visiting a brothel. Upon entering, a gaggle of young men are being entertained by a handful of prostitutes. Tom is feeling very uneasy, but Shadow is quick introduce him to Mother Goose, the madam of the house. Shadow makes Tom recite a new catechism, which makes him even more anxious. After further goading by Shadow, Tom finally states that he follows nature rather than doctrine, and seeks beauty and pleasure. Tom, however, cannot help but feel guilty, especially after thinking of Anne. Despite his strong reservations, Tom succumbs to the whims of lust and goes with Mother Goose to her boudoir.

A few days have passed, and having received no letter, Anne begins to worry about Tom. Fearing he may be in danger, Anne leaves her father's country home and heads to London.

The Rake's Progress, ACT 2
Bored with the sordid adventures and pleasures London has to offer, Tom sits sullenly in his London home contemplating his life. After muttering a wish for happiness, Shadow enters the room with a circus poster of the famous bearded lady, Baba the Turk. Shadow joyfully tells Tom that in order to exercise his freedom, Tom should marry her. Without hesitation, Tom agrees that this could be a pleasant distraction.

After looking all over London, Anne finally finds Tom's house as the sun dips below the evening horizon. Before she knocking on the door, an action she is hesitant to make, she spies Tom's servants carrying many packages into the house. Pretty soon, a procession of cars pull up to the house and Tom steps out of one of the sedans. When he spots Anne, he commands her to leave and to forget about him altogether. After what he has done, he could never come back to her. Anne quickly learns why. The bearded lady, Baba, calls out for Tom. He explains to Anne that he has just married her. Tom tells her again that it is too late for them, and he turns back to the car to help escort Baba into the house. As a large crowd gathers around them, Anne runs away in despair.

The following day, Tom begins having second thoughts about his decision to marry Baba. As she chatters and rambles on about her tchotchkes and how she acquired them, it is apparent he finds her voice grating. It finally dawns on her that he has become unresponsive to her stories, and she is quick to complain. With the ferocity of a lion, he yells at her to be quiet. Baba sinks back in her chair, petrified by his angry outburst, and Tom falls asleep. After having a vivid dream, Tom wakes up mumbling how he wishes it were true. Like clockwork, Shadow enters the room pushing a strange machine capable of turning ordinary stones into loaves of bread. Tom couldn't be happier. It is the machine he had just dreamed about. Tom, hoping to make up for the many wrongs he committed after leaving Anne in the country, decides he must sell this machine to the masses so that every man, woman, and child can have food to eat. What Tom doesn't know, however, is that the glorious machine is nothing but a sham.

The Rake's Progress, ACT 3
Months have passed and Tom's business hawking a farcical stone-to-bread machine ended in disaster. On this particular warm spring day, Tom's estate is up for auction. The same room with Baba's tchotchke collection appears exactly as it was last seen, including a petrified Baba. As potential buyers browse through the eclectic wares, Anne arrives searching for Tom, having heard rumors of his downfall. The auctioneer starts the bid for Baba. When buyers begin shouting their price, Baba revives to her chatter-box self and demands everyone to leave at once. She sees Anne and pulls her out of the exciting crowd. Baba tells her that Tom still has feelings for her, and that she must save him. She also warns her that Nick Shadow is bad news. Moments later, Tom and Shadow are heard singing in the street, and Anne rushes out of the house to greet them.

Shadow has lead Tom into a graveyard, where a grave that has just been dug awaits for him. Tom is confused, and Shadow reminds him that it has just been over a year that the two men met. Shadow reveals his true identity and tells Tom that is time for him to take his own life, for his soul is his payment. Shadow gives him until midnight to complete the morbid task. Seemingly out of nowhere, Shadow changes his mind and offers a wager. They will gamble for Tom's soul over a game of cards. Tom chooses the Queen of Hearts and calls out to Anne. Anne has followed them there, and when she responds, Shadow realizes he has lost the bet. He exacts his revenge by condemning Tom to insanity. As the sun rises in the East, Tom, who is now insane, believes himself to be Adonis. Wanting nothing more than to be with Venus, he desperately calls out to her.

Tom has been in an insane asylum for several days. He tells the other inmates that Venus will be there to visit him today, and they are quick to laugh and ridicule him. Anne arrives and Tom's eyes light up. Venus has come to be with him. Now in her arms, he confesses his sins, and Anne, for a moment believes they are Adonis and Venus, true loves, drifting among Heaven's clouds. Tom asks her to sing him to sleep, to which she obliges. The inmates are captivated by her, and Tom falls asleep. When her father arrives, Anne says her last goodbyes to the sleeping Tom. When Tom wakes up and discovers that Venus has departed, he cries out to her. Tom's grief is too great to bear, and with one last cry, he dies.

The Rake's Progress, Epilogue
Mr. Trulove, Anne, Tom, Shadow, and Baba recite the moral of the story: the devil will find work in those with idle hands.

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