In doing The Rake’s Progress of Igor Stravinsky, the New York City Opera tried its hand at a classic of musical modernism. Despite an unsuitable set design and a less than stellar musical execution, the experiment proved worthwhile. Given the uninspiring nature of the City Opera’s recent seasons, the event has been welcome news for New York opera lovers.

It was, of course, hardly a coincidence that this success for Beverly Sills’s troubled company took place with a major work by one of the very few universally recognized great composers of the twentieth century after World War I. The Rake’s Progress, written between 1948 and 1951, came at the tail end of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, and thus looked backward, both in musical inspiration (to Gluck and Mozart, among others) and in subject, time, and place (to Hogarth’s frank and even shocking paintings of eighteenth-century...


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