Stravinsky Oedipus Rex Gatti Dynamic DVD 37981

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Oedipus Rex, W. 56, Opera-oratorio in two acts after Sophocles (1926-7)
Libretto by Jean Cocteau translated into Latin by Jean Daniélou
Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968)
Three Orchestral Preludes for Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (1904)
Oedipus – A J Glueckert (tenor)
Jocaste – Ekaterina Semenchuck (mezzo-soprano)
Creon – Alex Esposito (bass-baritone)
Tiresias – Adolfo Corrado (bass)
Speaker – Massimo Popolizio (spoken role)
Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Daniele Gatti
rec. live, 30 June 2022, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Sala Zubin Mehta, Florence, Italy
Dynamic DVD 37981 [79]

Stravinsky called Oedipus Rex an opera-oratorio and it is usually performed as a concert work. The libretto is by Cocteau, based on Sophocles and translated into Latin by Jean Daniélou. The story is assumed to be familiar to the audience and is, in any case, recalled at intervals throughout the work by a Speaker, who uses the language of the audience, which here is Italian. The performers wear masks and do not move except for entrances and exits. I first saw this work as a boy in a famous stage production at Sadlers Wells, conducted by Colin Davis, loved it at once and have always considered it one of the finest of the long line of Stravinsky masterpieces. Consequently, I jumped at the chance of reviewing a new DVD of it, not realising that this is a DVD not of a stage production but of another concert performance.

Still, it is quite a good one. It was taken live from one performance. This must account for a shaky start with poor coordination between orchestra and chorus and some sloppy rhythm, but matters improve thereafter. A J Glueckert as Oedipus begins accurately, but does not get the boastful quality in his opening aria. However, he also improves and the haunting and self-pitying aria Invidia fortunam odit comes off well as does the realisation of the horror of what he has done at Natus sum quo nefastum est, though the final Lux facta est is slightly spoiled by the clarinet trill, an essential Stravinskian touch, being inaudible.

Alex Esposito is a firm and authoritative, indeed menacing, Creon. Adolfo Corrado has a strong top but weak lower voice as Tiresias, and Luca Bernard as the Shepherd and Sebastian Geyer as the Messenger are both satisfactory. Their duet In monte reppertus est is fine and Geyer’s Stentorian cries of Divum Jocasta caput mortuum resound like trumpets and the accompanying chorus –Stravinsky called it a mortuary tarantella – is thrilling, and the moment when, in a stage production, Oedipus reappears in a mask showing his bleeding eye sockets, is properly shattering.

Jocaste, the one female role, is well taken by Ekaterina Semenchuck, her rich voice giving colour to her aria Nonn’erubiskite, reges, its frightened continuation Oracula, oracula and the frantic duet with Oedipus when she is trying and failing to stave off the realisation of what has happened.

Massimo Popolizio delivers the spoken narration well, rather more flamboyantly than is customary with English-language Speakers. The point where he sets the rhythm for the chorus Delie, exspectamus, was clumsily done and would have been refined had they had opportunities to do repairs.

The male chorus, after that shaky start, sing with a will and Daniele Gatti conducts competently but without giving me the impression that he is a natural Stravinsky conductor.

The Stravinsky is preceded by Three Orchestral Preludes for the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, that is, Stravinsky’s ultimate source. Pizzetti was of the same generation as Respighi, Malipiero and Casella, but is less known, certainly in the UK, than the others. He was mainly an opera composer, and his best-known opera, Assassinio nella Cattedrale, based on T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, has had several recordings, including one by Karajan. These Preludes are one of his earliest works, written to support a production of the play. They are in a rather austere idiom, not the late Romantic one might expect. The first features a modal theme on the woodwinds, interrupted by horn calls. The second is fast and agitated, with brass fanfares and a long oboe solo, and the third is anguished and chromatic. They are good pieces, but I am afraid they fade into insignificance when set against Stravinsky.

The sound and picture quality are fine. There is a useful booklet, in Italian and English, and the DVD offers subtitles in English, French, German, Korean, Japanese – and Latin, the language of the libretto.

This is a decent performance of Oedipus Rex, but is really only of interest to those who want to see as well as hear a concert performance. It is, incidentally, also available in sound only as a CD on Dynamic CDS7981. There do not seem to be any stage performances available on DVD at present. There are numerous sound recordings, including one of the production under Colin Davis I saw long ago, now on Warner, as well as a later one by him on Orfeo. A personal choice is that by Salonen, but there are many others.

Stephen Barber

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