Monumental and Hieratic
Stravinsky's 'Oedipus Rex',
recommended by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
recommended by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex on a libretto by Jean Cocteau (translated into Latin by Jean Daniélou) is a favorite of Rome audiences. On 27 February 2016, I saw and heard the new production by the National Academy of Santa Cecilia symphonic orchestra. Although this opera-oratorio has not been in the 'seasons' of the Academy since 1999, there were two fully staged productions with sets and costumes in 2005 and 2008, one by the Rome Teatro dell'Opera and the other by the (now dissolved) Orchestra Sinfonica Romana.
The music was composed during 1926-27. It was Stravinsky's idea to insist on a conventional 'opera' format with specific and well identified 'numbers', as against a then fashionable music drama. The six 'numbers' are introduced and linked by a narrator with spoken summaries (in vernacular, ie in the language of the theatre or concert hall where the work is performed). Stravinsky also insisted that, in view of this being a monumental and hieratic opera, the main characters should behave like statues. As a result, it functions equally well in a fully staged opera house production or in an auditorium for a concert performance.
The score is a clear example of Stravinsky's early neoclassical period: although outdated, themes from arpeggiated triads and formal recitatives are almost ostentatiously displayed to deliberately heighten the monumental and hierarchic atmosphere of the tragedy. Nonetheless, as Leonard Bernstein remarked, Oedipus Rex is Stravinsky's most Verdian opera: a very humane conception of the tragedy centered on Oedipus and Jocasta's very personal dramas, a vivid use of tonalities, powerful thematic recapitulations and a masterly transmutation of the title role's musical idiom from a very high to a very low register (like in Verdi's Otello).
In the new Santa Cecilia production, the musical direction was entrusted to Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo. He emphasized the Verdian connection: rhythm, tight tempi and passionate accents (especially in Jocasta's aria).
Under the direction of Ciro Visco, the chorus is one of the musical protagonists and deals magnificently with the impervious score. Among the soloists, Mati Turi, who was also Oedipus in the 2005 Teatro dell'Opera di Roma production, is a heroic tenor with great power and able to balance the central register (the main key to his role) with ascension to almost extreme heights (in the first aria) and reaching equally extreme lows (in the final scene). Sonia Ganassi is confirmed as one of the best mezzos on the market: her Jocasta is sensual and deals equally well with coloratura and with very low register. Alfred Muff has two roles — Creon and a messenger — and he is credible in both. The young tenor Simone Ponziani is quite effective in the long Shepherd's aria. Marco Spotti is the sneaky and persuasive Tiresias. All are greatly successful.
As Oedipus Rex is only fifty minutes long, the evening was opened with Franz Joseph Haydn's Symphony No 22, The Philosopher. With its delicate grace, it provides a major contrast to Stravinsky's colossal architecture.