"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 29, 2017

Best Twentieth Century Operas (6): Oedipus Rex by Igor Stravinsky (1927)

Thanks to Freud's study of the so-called "Oedipus complex," everyone has at least heard the name "Oedipus," a hero from Greek mythology who accidentally fulfilled a prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother. The Oedipus story is mentioned in various forms in fragments by Greek poets as Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus and Euripides. The most popular version comes from a set of three "Theban plays" by Sophocles (ca. 496-406 BCE): Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.

[Sophocles - Image Wikipedia]

Here is the backstory of Oedipus Rex, which is also used as background in Stravinsky's opera of the same title. Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of the Greek city of Thebes. The famous Oracle of Apollo at Delphi has prophesied that any son born to Laius will kill him. So when Oedipus is born, the royal couple pierces the ankles of the baby so that it cannot crawl (the name Oedipus means "swollen foot") and orders a servant to abandon the child on a nearby mountain. The servant, however, takes pity on the child and gives it to a shepherd from Corinth; finally, via-via, the infant Oedipus ends up being adopted by the childless king and queen of Corinth, Polybus and Merope.

After many years, when he is a grown man, Oedipus accidentally learns that he is not the son of Polybus and Merope and he consults the oracle in Delphi to ask who his true parents are. The oracle only repeats its earlier message to King Laius, "that he is destined to murder his father and marry his mother." In an attempt to avoid such a terrible fate, Oedipus decides not to return to Corinth (believing Polybus and Merope to be his biological parents), but instead to travel to Thebes, a town near Delphi. On the way, at a crossing of three roads, Oedipus encounters a chariot and quarrels with the charioteer over who has the right to go first. When the charioteer tries to run him over, Oedipus kills the man. As we will learn later, this was none other than his father, King Laius. The first part of the prophesy has been fulfilled with ominous speed.

On his way to Thebes, Oedipus encounters a monster called Sphinx, which asks a riddle of all travelers. Only those who can successfully answer, are allowed to pass unharmed, all others are killed. The riddle is: "What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?" Oedipus' answer is: "Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs; in old age, he uses a walking stick." Oedipus becomes the first traveler ever to answer the riddle correctly.

[Oedipus and the Sphinx by Ingres - Image Wikipedia]

Now the second part of the prophesy is to be fulfilled. Creon, the brother of Queen Jocasta (and therefore Oedipus' uncle) has announced that the person who manages to vanquish the Spinx will be made King of Thebes, by marrying the recently widowed Queen Jocasta. And so it comes about that Oedipus unwittingly marries the queen, his mother, and has four children by her.

The story told so far is the background to which is constantly referred in both play and opera. Play and opera start from here, again many years later. Thebes has been struck by a plague and its people loudly lament this. Oedipus, king of Thebes and conqueror of the Sphinx, promises to save the city. At his request, Creon seeks the advice of the Oracle of Delphi. The answer is that the murderer of the former King Laius must be brought to justice - he is not just still at large, but even living in the city. It is the murderer who has brought the plague upon the city. Oedipus promises to discover the killer and cast him out. Then the advice of the blind prophet Tiresias is sought. Tiresias at first refuses to speak out and warns King Oedipus not to seek Laius' murderer. Angered, Oedipus accuses him of being the murderer himself. Provoked, Tiresias retorts that "the murderer of the king is a king." Terrified, Oedipus then accuses Tiresias of being in league with Creon, whom he believes is after his throne.

At that moment, Queen Jocasta appears. She calms the quarrel by saying that oracles always lie. After all, wasn't Laius killed at a crossroads by robbers, instead of by the hand of his own son as the oracle had predicted? Filled with foreboding, Oedipus confesses that he, too, has once killed an elderly man at a crossroads. So has he brought about the terrible plague in his own city? A messenger arrives from Corinth to announce the death of King Polybus, whom Oedipus believes to be his father. However, it is now revealed to Oedipus that he is not the biological son of Polybus but a foundling brought up as their own child by the Corinthian royal pair. As proof, the ancient shepherd who took the child to the mountains, is also brought to the palace. Jocasta, finally realizing that Oedipus must be her son, flees. Oedipus misunderstands her motivation, thinking that she feels ashamed of him because he now seems to be of low birth. But at last, the messenger and shepherd state the truth openly: Oedipus is the child of Laius and Jocasta, killer of his father, husband of his mother. He has committed both patricide and incest. Next, the death of Jocasta is reported: she has hanged herself in her chambers. Oedipus breaks into her room and uses the pin from a brooch he takes off her gown to blind himself (he, who was blind to himself, now blinds himself). The Thebans, both sad and angry, ban Oedipus from their city.

[Igor Stravinsky]

The libretto for Stravinsky's opera Oedipus Rex was written by the renowned French poet Jean Cocteau, based on the play by Sophocles. As Stravinsky wanted to create a liturgical "opera-oratorio," he asked for a text in Latin, so Cocteau's French (itself leaning heavily on Sophocles) was translated back into Latin. Stravinsky called Latin not a dead language, but "a language turned to stone." Anyway, to write an opera in Latin could also be seen as irony: how many listeners are really able to understand all those Italian operas? Couldn't they just as well be in Latin? And of course, Latin is also the language in which many Masses, Requiems and other church music have been written in the last few centuries, a language which has an important distancing effect.

The music is in Stravinsky's Neoclassical manner, but with varied fluctuations of mood to fit the dramatic story. The six soloists sing in a somewhat Italianate style and all have their own aria. The opera is however dominated by the male chorus, which comments on events in a heavy declamatory style, giving a decidedly Russian-Orthodox impression. There is also a narrator who is allowed to speak the language of the country where the opera is performed. The narrator introduces the story and returns five or six times to give an update about the action, so that everyone in the public can follow the events on stage. The narration gets gradually more dramatic and is eventually integrated into the musical fabric.

My favorite version of Oedipus Rex is an international Japanese production, which adds elements from Japanese culture to the mix and even features a Butoh dancer (Min Tanaka). This production was directed by Julie Taymor (who also made the film version) and performed at the Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto in Japan in 1992, with Seiji Ozawa as director; soloists are Philip Langridge (Oedipus), Jessye Norman (Jocasta) and Bryn Terfel (Creon); the orchestra and chorus are Japanese. Moreover, the stunning costumes were designed by Emi Wada: the main characters wear a sort of stoneware puppet head on their head (with a primitive face such as have been unearthed by excavations in ancient Greece) and all have huge, hieratic hands of clay; the chorus is clothed in ragged brown sackcloth, which makes them look like resurrected mummies; their make-up is also death-like. Great is also the Japanese narrator, acted by Shiraishi Kayoko, who updates us on the story in what can only be called a super-dramatic style of speaking.

But most interesting is the role played by Tanaka Min. He is a life-size clay puppet wearing a stiff earthen mask, who mimes every gesture of Oedipus with formalized gestures, symbolizing the fact that Oedipus himself is a puppet handled by and at the mercy of the gods. When at the end of the opera the terrible truth about Oedipus becomes known, the clay shell of this puppet breaks and we see a vulnerable, naked man (the only human figure in the whole production). Min Tanaka drives long pins into the eyes of the puppet Oedipus wears on his head and at the same moment strips of red cloth fall like flowing blood from his own blinded eyes. He stumbles down the stage, under which is a pool of dark liquid. Surrounded by ghostly shapes, he walks into the water, the last we see of him. Finally, the sound of dripping water is replaced by that of a cleansing, pouring rain, signaling that the drama is over. 

A mix of cultures that works very well, and also a theater adaptation in which always something interesting is happening on stage (if only the mime of Min Tanaka), adding an extra dimension to the original and saving the opera from becoming too static. Musically, it is also an excellent performance.

Twentieth Century Opera: (1) Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy (2) Salome by Strauss (3) Die Gezeichneten by Schreker (4) Der Zwerg by Zemlinsky (5) Die tote Stadt by Korngold (6) Oedipus Rex by Stravinsky (7)