Gergiev’s Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring … Oedipus Rex

The Rite of Spring
Oedipus Rex – opera-oratorio in two acts to a text by Jean Cocteau [narration in English; sung in Latin]

Jocasta – Zlata Bulycheva
Oedipus – Sergei Semishkur
Creon / Messenger – Ilya Bannik
Tiresias – Alexei Tanovitsky
Shepherd – Alexander Timchenko

Simon Callow (narrator)

Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Simon Thomas

Reviewed: 15 May, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: Marco BorggreveOedipus Rex (1927) helped usher in Stravinsky’s neoclassical phase, which was later to spawn his great, slightly gawky, stage-work The Rake’s Progress. The earlier piece is one of those hybrids and doesn’t quite fit into any one category. The composer called it an opera-oratorio, which is somewhat contradictory, and, with a text written by Jean Cocteau no less, it sits uneasily between drama as we know it and the static nature of concert presentation. Full stagings are rare. David Alden brought characteristic intelligence and style to it at English National Opera some twenty years ago and, a decade on, the RCM presented it with a soon-to-be starry cast. Concert performances remain the norm.

Sophocles’s Oedipus is the perfect play, not just because Aristotle said it is, or because it conforms so immaculately to the dramatic unities, but because of its economy of exposition and development, and the pace of its tragic unfolding. Cocteau and Stravinsky’s version serves it brilliantly.

Nobody knows quite how Greek theatre was performed but Stravinsky’s detached stylisation feels as though it may come close. There’s not much room for naturalistic emoting but in the theatre the play describes such huge emotional spans that it confounds most actors and eludes all but the most expert. With Stravinsky’s magnificent music to aid them, singers have a slightly easier time of it. A number of earlier composers, from Bellini to Verdi, have been credited with influencing the work. The score also sounds uncannily like Kurt Weill at times, which just adds to the similarity of Stravinsky/Cocteau’s dramatic method to Brecht’s Lehrstücke, giving an almost didactic feel to the telling of the story.

At the end of a brief Stravinsky festival, which found the LSO and its principal conductor going al fresco in Trafalgar Square last week, Valery Gergiev conducted a riveting account of this splendid work. A strong line-up of vocalists impressed, even if their Latin sounded more Russian much of the time and placing them behind the orchestra reinforced the distancing effect. Sergei Semishkur’s youthful tenor gave Oedipus an innocence that made the plunge into self-knowledge all the more shattering and Zlata Bulycheva’s dark-edged Jocasta obsessed with the repeated denial of “Oraculamentiuntur” (the oracle lies). Ilya Bannik and Alexei Tanovitsky’s besuited Creon/Messenger and Tiresias suggested urban sophistication more than elemental rawness, emphasising Stravinsky’s strange blend of styles. A thankfully unamplified Simon Callow gave a dignified and undemonstrative narration from the front of the stage, perched beside the conductor, while the Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus were superb as the backbone of the piece and the LSO excelled in every department.

Gergiev and the Barbican Centre are no strangers to Oedipus Rex; in fact, the last (but not first) time he conducted it here, five years ago, it was with the same narrator and orchestra. If Gergiev has championed the work across the world, it’s nevertheless performed a good deal less than it deserves.

The same can hardly be said for The Rite of Spring, which preceded it. Whether presented as a fully staged ballet or in a concert, you could lob a stone into any season and not fail to hit it. It’s almost as common an occurrence as a Royal Opera revival of La traviata or La bohème. It’s just as well then that The Rite is a work that’s nigh on impossible to tire of. Gergiev teased in the reflective passages, with tempos on the slow side, before letting loose a whirlwind of fury. Here too concert-hall formality clashed with the sheer abandon of natural forces, creating an exhilarating stylistic mix. The LSO was on exemplary form.

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