The libretto he commissioned from the poet W.H. Auden tells of the rise and decline of the hero Tom Rakewell, a weak man who, urged on by the mephistophelian Nick Shadow, abandons his beloved (Anne Trulove) to make his fortune, marries a bearded lady, ruins himself, gambles his soul away at cards, and ends up in “Bedlam” asylum for the insane, from which Anne tries in vain to rescue him.
Often described as Stravinsky’s final neo-classical work, the mischievous score is a delicious subversion of 18th-century operatic style, divided into recitatives, virtuoso arias and ensembles. Distancing and irony are the key words.
Premiered in 1951 at La Fenice in Venice, the opera quickly became a worldwide success, and its popularity has endured, with it now being one of the world’s most frequently performed operas.