Oedipus Rex/Symphony of Psalms, Royal Festival Hall review: 'Trust Peter Sellars to devise a radical take on it'

Stravinsky's opera is directed by Peter Sellars in a magnificent production

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Stravinsky wanted his ‘opera-oratorio’ Oedipus Rex to be performed like a hieratic tableau vivant, with the principals wearing masks and the robed chorus in a single row, faces hidden. And in my experience that is how the dark and dreadful beauty of this music comes across most powerfully. Trust Peter Sellars to devise a radical take on it, but the real surprise of his production with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra lay in the way he not only put this work together with another of Stravinsky’s neo-classical masterpieces – Symphony of Psalms – but through clever stagecraft made them feel like one single work.

From the first great thunderclap of sound in Oedipus the Swedish male-voice chorus Orphei Drangar – blue-clad figures ranged above the orchestra – asserted massive dominance, and here Sellars’ sometimes-irritating hand-ballets seemed perfectly fit for purpose. Robert Kaiser’s sweetly vulnerable Oedipus and Katarina Dalayman’s superbly fateful Jocasta were sonorously counterbalanced by Willard White brilliantly trebling-up as Creon, blind Tiresias, and the truth-telling Messenger; turning the Speaker into Antigone (Emily Barber) gave the story a new immediacy. A row of ethnographic African thrones suggested another dimension: the whole thing could be seen through the prism of tribalism, with Oedipus’s family as foreign interlopers. As the horror of Oedipus gave way to the benediction of the Psalms – reinforced by the life-affirming sound of the female-voice Sofia Vokalensemble - Oedipus and his ‘daughters’ played out the end of their story in dumb show. The Philharmonia were magnificent, their wind players beyond compare.

 

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