Oedipus Rex is one of the composer’s most powerfully affecting works. The choice of Latin for the sung text — written in French by Jean Cocteau and translated into Latin by Jean Danielou — was intended to distance the audience from the action. The same goes for the static and stylised production specified in the score. The music however, with its echoes of earlier opera composers including Verdi and Bellini, tends to contradict this with its red-blooded vigour and dramatic power. Its brevity and variety also help to make it one of the composer’s most vivid and memorable scores. I looked forward very much to hearing this new version. In the event whilst it has much to commend it I was somewhat disappointed over two crucial matters.
To get them out of the way first. The part of Oedipus is notoriously hard to bring off. It calls for flexibility and precision, especially in the earlier parts. The singer must at the same time be able to get across the orchestra and be able to sound appropriately regal without any hint of feebleness if the tragedy is to sound as such. Much as I admire Stuart Skelton in heavier roles, especially in Wagner, he does not convince here. His lightening of the voice to negotiate the tessitura tends to make the character sound weak. His apparent discomfort leads to a lack of conviction in his characterisation. If he is compared with such very different singers as Peter Pears, on the composer’s earlier recording, or with Ronald Dowd, on Sir Colin Davis’s first recording, he fails to make the same positive impression, leaving a critical void at the centre.
The other serious defect is the Speaker of Fanny Ardant. Bearing in mind that the purpose of the brief narrations between the scenes is to remind the audience of the action of Sophocles’ tragedy it is surely essential that it be in the audience’s own language to achieve that result. Even if you think that a narration in French is appropriate in London you might reasonably expect the Speaker to note the comment in the score that “he expresses himself like a conferencier, presenting the story with a detached voice”. In the recordings I mentioned earlier Jean Cocteau and Sir Ralph Richardson both attain the necessary degree of detachment with their very stylised narrations. Fanny Ardant sounds too involved in the action as well as suffering from a level of hoarseness that I found painful to listen to.
After all of this it is good to be able to praise almost without reservation the rest of what we hear. The orchestra and (men’s) chorus are simply superb, with a degree of clarity in the texture which brings out much of the score which I had simply not heard before. Gardiner gets playing of great rhythmic buoyancy and ensures real forward momentum. The cast apart from the title character could perhaps be sung with greater individuality and precision but none of them detracts from the power of a performance which any admirer of the work needs to hear.
This Apollon Musagète is in every way a success, with its ravishing string textures perfectly captured. Others, notably the composer, have treated it with harder-edged rhythms but it is work which responds very well to this treatment and makes a fascinating comparison with the main work which it is hard to believe was written only a year earlier.
Despite my reservations over some important aspects of this Oedipus Rex this is a disc well worth adding to any Stravinsky collection. It is well filled, has an excellent booklet with the necessary text and translation, and has well considered and largely satisfactory readings of two of the composer’s best works.
Masterwork Index: Apollon