Classed by Stravinsky as an "Opera Oratorio", Oedipus Rex is in many ways the very antithesis of opera, certainly as the genre was understood at the time of the work's premiere in 1927. Stravinsky, more or less in collaboration with Cocteau, created an intentionally static monolith in which the cast sings a Latin text from behind masks in a deliberately one-dimensional representation of Sophocles's tragedy. This causes difficulties of programming, for Oedipus Rex is too short to merit an evening to itself. Yet, as Stravinsky discovered at the first performance, it is not particularly comfortable within a double or triple bill.
Robert Wilson's solution, in a new production at the Chatelet in Paris, was to precede the work with a 25-minute "silent prologue" in which a slow, stylised evocation of the Oedipus story unfolded in a manner reminiscent of Noh theatre. Thus, linked to the evening's main attraction, the prologue was far enough removed in character to register as a separate entity. It certainly achieved one of Wilson's aims, namely to heighten the already forthright impact made by Stravinksy's music when it eventually arrived. However, it also left me feeling equivocal about both its content and also about the advisability of trying to add to a work that is already distinctly complete.
Wilson's presence also dominated the dark, colourless sets, costumes and action in Oedipus Rex. On the surface, there were many divergences from Stravinsky's vision. He dispensed with the masks and the restrictions on movement so that the (Czech radio) chorus was sometimes huddled and at other times randomly spread out, though always occupying the steps that dominated the stage. However, alternative masks were created in the form of the singers' gestures. These were only rarely explicit in intention and, as with the Latin text, seemed to be replete with meaning but were at the same time abstruse and difficult to interpret. All this prompted me to wonder whether, following Stravinksy's cue, Wilson feels that gestures are, of themselves, incapable of expressing anything.
A few first-night jitters aside, the cast proved to be magnificent, with James O'Neal's Oedipus (replacing an indisposed Philip Langridge) giving a wonderful portrayal of the gradual realisation of a horrific truth. As reluctant guardian of that terrible truth, Willard White's Tiresias was predictably arresting. Remaining on stage throughout as a troubled observer of events, his eventual revelation that "the assassin of the king is a king" leapt out of his mouth as an uncontrollable force that simultaneously threw him into the air. Michelle De Young's commanding Jocaste deserves particular praise, as does the narrator, Laurent Terzieff. With Christoph von Dohnanyi at the helm, the dramatic pacing was taut, while the Philharmonia was in particularly fine form.
Dohnanyi conducts a concert performance of `Oedipus Rex', 7.30pm, 26 Nov, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1. Booking: 0171-960 4242
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