Tuesday 6 September 2016

Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex (Aix-en-Provence, 2016)

Igor Stravinsky - Oedipus Rex/Symphony of Psalms

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2016

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars, Joseph Kaiser, Violeta Urmana, Willard White, Joshua Stewart, Pauline Cheviller, Laurel Jenkins

Culturebox - 17th July 2016

The performance of Stravinsky's Oedpius Rex and Symphony of Psalms at the Aix-en-Provence festival is a perfect example of just what is so important and great about opera as a living artform. You can ponder the implications of Sophocles' Greek drama, you can give attention to where Stravinsky places emphasis in his reading of the material, and you can formulate all kinds of connections between the real-world and how it is presented on the stage. Sometimes however timing and events can add yet another entirely unpredictable and unforeseen element to give a work of art a life entirely of its own.

The event in question at the time of this July 17th 2016 performance of Oedipus Rex at Aix-en-Provence, was the terrorist attack a few days earlier in nearby Nice during the Bastille Day celebrations that resulted in 84 deaths. In the light of such a horrific event it becomes impossible not to look at this production in a different way from how it might have been originally intended, or from how you might have looked at it even a week earlier. If the production however touches on the essence of the questions raised in the ancient Greek drama, it will inevitably make its own truthful associations with those recent events, and Peter Sellars' production does seem to touch at the heart of them.

So while such events were evidently far from the mind of the original Igor Stravinsky/Jean Cocteau presentation of the Sophocles drama, its combination with Peter Sellars' modern dress production opens the drama up enough to allow it to resonate with such events. Suddenly, without it being the intention of anyone involved, you can see the fear and incomprehension of the French nation in the people of Thebes as they are afflicted by a terrible plague. You can see too how they would turn to their leader in this time of mourning to seek reassurance and protection. You can also see the powerlessness felt by that ruler - a man in a suit - who is ignorant of the part he has played in bringing this plague upon his people. In denial, feeling assailed and powerless to do anything else, his natural reaction is to strike out.

Sellars' direction might still be encumbered somewhat by familiar mannerisms and affectations, but there is unquestionably something absolutely right about the method employed if it allows those connections to be made. It's debatable whether the tribal wood carvings and throne add anything other than relating the present to antiquity, suggesting that there is a deeper human truth here that lies outside the surface considerations of time, place and dress costume. The chorus making exaggerated semaphored hand-signals is another affectation that doesn't really seem to add anything, but if without really being aware of it it makes the audience pay more attention to the words being expressed and it helps the chorus think about the importance and urgence of what they are singing, then it undoubtedly serves its purpose here.

I'm sure that the direction and the sense of occasion would have made its way into the singing performances as well. You can certainly get a sense of that in the performance of Joseph Kaiser as Oedipus. The ruler of Thebes is a man of authority and respect for his past actions saving the city, and Kaiser carries all of that in his lyrical tone, but there's an edge there as well as the enormity of his origins starts to become clear. Willard White is also fired up in this performance as Creon, Tiresias and Messenger, delivering messages that no-one wants to hear. In a role that is equally emotional, Violeta Urmana struggles however to contain and control it, her singing sounding rather wayward in a wavering line, but it's an intense performance. The speaking role of the narrator/Antigone shouldn't be underestimated for its importance in relating events and relating to the audience, and Pauline Cheviller gets that across with deep feeling.

Although musically connected, coming from the same period in Stravinsky's neoclassical style, it does seem odd to pair the Greek drama of Oedipus Rex with the Christian sentiments of Symphony of Psalms. Dramatically for the sake of the staging however, Sellers draws very loosely in this short presentation from Sophocles' 'Oedipus at Colonus'. Pauline Cheviller's Antigone is again the narrator who links the two parts together, and Ismene is played by a dancer. In this follow-up, the wandering blind Oedipus in exile is led by his daughter away from Thebes to be welcomed in Colonus near Athens, where he will end his days "with peace divine". Setting the Greek play to Symphony of Psalms does seem tenuous on a rational level, but rationality and suitability are not so much the point here as taking the lessons learned from Oedipus to the next stage on a human level.

The stage accordingly is emptied of any props, reflecting an Oedipus stripped of his former life, his position, his sight. Sellers uses lighting effects to describe his emotional state, some of which is rather Robert Wilson-like in effect, with a small neon square of light to the side of the stage being where Oedipus eventually is led and left to lie down and rest. It looks gorgeous and is a perfect accompaniment and setting for Stravinsky's beautiful music, conducted here wonderfully by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The singers again punch out the choral singing with arms and hands, and some ballet movements all contribute to reflect what is being expressed and how it relates to what is going on in world not so very far away from where this performance took place in Provence.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox