Oedipus Rex, Opera by I. Stravinsky
As part of Igor Stravinsky’s celebrated neoclassical period, Oedipus Rex represents a time of great imagination and considerable output in the composer’s life. The Ancient Greek tragedy by Sophocles was such an inspiration to him that the first production of the opera-oratorio was to be in the original Greek. The idea, however, was ultimately scrapped. Instead, Jean Cocteau produced a French libretto based on the play that was then translated into Latin by friar Jean Daniélou. Oedipus Rex was premiered on 30 May 1927 at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris as a simple oratorio performance of Stravinsky’s score without staging or acting. An operatic production was mounted by the Vienna State Opera on 23 February 1928. Rome’s Teatro Costanzi now returns to the neoclassical gem that is Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.
The setup of the opera-oratorio keeps abreast with the Ancient Greek tradition. Thus, we find a Narrator who guides us into the drama’s origins and current status and also helps us make sense of the on-stage action. He is our all-seeing eye into the characters’ motivations and inner worlds. The action takes place in the ancient, plague-stricken city of Thebes. As per the Delphi Oracle, the plague is the gods’ punishment for the murder of Thebes’s old King Laius and will continue until his killer is found and brought to justice. The current King Oedipus pursues the hunt for the mysterious murderer. At every step, he uncovers shocking secrets, deceptions and betrayals. They slowly but surely lead him to an unbelievable, destructive epiphany that will bring him to a tragic downfall.
With Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky achieves a harmonious marriage of Ancient Greek theatricality with 20th-century musical sensibility. The old conventions of narration and the dramatic functions of the chorus are still there, but the imaginative composition and the composer’s inimitable taste for operatic dramatization refresh and modernise them convincingly. Classical and contemporary musical vocabulary flows together in the orchestration, and connoisseurs of Latin will discover many irreverent counterpoints between text and music throughout the performance. Thus, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma has picked an impressive entry from Stravinsky’s stacked neoclassical catalogue.