Cellblock 23 is acting up. The riot squad beats prisoners. The guards use cocaine. One inmate has sold his soul to another. Anguished, in solitary confinement, he bangs the walls of his tiny cell with the fury of a Stravinsky rhythm.
In fact, he furiously bangs his cell walls to a specific Stravinsky rhythm.
Peter Sellars, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have come to Paris. And they've brought with them a raw slice of L.A. life. Set in a jail, Sellars' literally arresting production of Stravinsky's opera, "The Rake's Progress," opened a season-long Stravinsky festival at the Thea^tre du Cha^telet. The philharmonic will be in residence there through the middle of October, performing a number of works that the Russian composer wrote during the '40s and '50s, when he lived in Beverly Hills.
Although there has been no word from L.A. Opera about bringing this "Rake" home, it has already become the talk of Parisian intellectual life. Demand for tickets is great, and it will surely grow if the reaction of competing cheers and boos from an eager first night audience, which included heads of major European opera companies and a large contingent of European press, is any indication.
Controversy is, of course, inevitable and invited given Sellars' brazen polemics. He asks here whether prisoners can be redeemed or whether society has become so hopeless that after three strikes they really are out. He represents prisoners and guards as undergoing exactly the same struggle between good and evil that we all know.
That is both a very big leap and no leap at all from the comic, neoclassical burlesque romp that Stravinsky and his librettist, W.H. Auden--a couple of former rakes themselves who had returned to religion--created shortly after the Second World War. They had been inspired by a series of 18th century etchings by William Hogarth to follow the progress of a young man who suddenly comes into money, leaves his sweetheart to partake in the corruptions of London life and falls into ruin. Auden added a Mephistophelean figure who leads Tom Rakewell on. And he also included all sorts of grotesqueries, the most amazing being a bearded lady of the circus, Baba the Turk, whom Tom--having reached a certain level of kinky cynicism--marries and quickly learns to loathe. Only the virginal Anne can save his far-gone soul.
Ultimately, Sellars interprets Auden's reliance on elegant verse and Stravinsky's on Mozartean conventions as devices the collaborators used to disguise serious moral issues. So Sellars has gotten rid of the romp and shows "The Rake" not as an opera that curiously turns serious at the end, but that is wrenchingly serious all along. Baba the Turk, for instance, isn't bearded but an alluring prison guard. Tom doesn't employ metaphor when he says he's buried her; as he leaves her, he shoots her.
Politics will likely affect how this interpretation is received. Sellars rubs it in; in the program book, all the illustrations are art by California prisoners. There are statistics on California prisons, and an article about how the French have discovered that more prisons don't translate into less crime. There are also pointed quotes from the Bible.
But the audiences' politics are not the point. The point instead is that Sellars has made believers of his cast, and every performance is spectacularly convincing. Dawn Upshaw, for instance, sings Anne--here the daughter of a prison guard--with a religious intensity that few have ever suspected even existed in the work.
So, too, the rest of a mostly American dream cast. Paul Groves, the American tenor, is the least naive of all Tom Rakewells. Instead he demonstrates the kind of criminal who's shrewd and tough on the outside, insecure inside, whose passage toward redemption through self-knowledge is a thrilling thing to witness. Willard White brings a Shakespearean villainy to Nick Shadow. Denyce Graves, who has been turning heads as Carmen the last couple of years, is an opulent, exciting Baba the Turk. Victoria Vergara's Mother Goose is no ludicrous madam but a female prison guard demanding dangerous sex. John Duykers, fondly remembered as Mao in "Nixon in China," turns the comic auctioneer Sellem into a shocking caricature of an over-the-top evangelist saving souls and selling slaves. Donald McIntyre is priestly as Anne's kindly father.
All of this is played out on the kind of exquisite stage that one has come to expect from Sellars' productions. This time Adrianne Lobel's set evokes '70s minimalist sculpture, its perfect rows of prison cells masterfully constructed and lit with dramatic purpose and visual allure by James F. Ingalls. Dunya Ramicova has dressed the inmates like, I guess, they dress--pretty wild, with lots of tattoos. And the chorus, the superb London Sinfonietta Voices, seems like the real thing, both as prisoners and guards.
That the philharmonic is in the pit is an incredible luxury, and the orchestra played splendidly all evening, while Salonen's deeply nuanced and dramatically compelling direction showed a level of musical depth rarely encountered in opera productions.
Sellars and Salonen are now one of the great teams in opera. Too bad they have to go to Paris to prove it these days.
* "The Rake's Progress," Thea^tre du Cha^telet, Paris, tonight and Thursday Oct. 7, 9, 12, 7:30 p.m.