BLO is moving into high gear with its upcoming production of the vivid, disturbing and highly theatrical opera Greek, by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Rehearsal have just started, sets are being built, costumes fitted…all in preparation for a November 16th opening.
The story of Oedipus and his brutal rendezvous with destiny is perhaps the most famous and well-known of the Greek tragedies, and, since its unsurpassed incarnation in the plays of Sophocles, has inspired a variety of reactions, responses and retellings. Greek itself is a striking departure from the traditional narrative both in its setting and period (the tough environment of London’s East End amid the violent social disruptions of the 1970s) and in its conclusion. Oedipus (now “Eddy”) rejects his traditional and expected fate, refuses to blind himself, and lovingly returns to his wife-mother. “Bollocks to all that.” Let’s look at some other versions of this story…which have mostly taken a less anarchistic approach to the legend while attempting to acknowledge its primal power and implications.
From film version of the Stratford, Canada production (1957) of the William Butler Yeats adaptation, directed by Tyrone Guthrie. This performance, with its robes, masks, stylized movement, dialogue delivered full of portent, attempts to evoke the classical theater of “ancient Greece.” The result to my mind is stilted, lifeless, off-puttingly pretentious, but certainly worth considering as an approach to the text.
Igor Stravinsky wrote his “Opera-oratorio after Sophocles,” Oedipus Rex, in 1927. It premiered in Paris in a concert performance; its first performance in America was the following year, given by the Boston Symphony and the Harvard Glee Club. It has also been staged (first in Vienna in 1928). The Santa Fe Opera presented it in 1960 with the composer in attendance. It has a text by Jean Cocteau, translated into Latin. The piece is, in some ways, the culmination of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period and has a monumental grandeur and power. Julie Taymor staged a version in Japan in 1992 which I think vividly captures these qualities…her striking use of stylization, masks and ritual movement form a stark contrast to the Guthrie production.
The Romanian composer George Enescu wrote his opera Oedipe over a number of years from 1910 on; its premiere was in Paris in 1936. Set to a French libretto by Edmond Fleg, it is a true grand opera, in five acts with extensive choral sections, and treats the entire story of Oedipus’ life. Although a considerable success at its first performance, it quickly fell out of popularity. The United States premiere was not until 2005 (at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana). The work has been revived to great acclaim, most recently at the Royal Opera House London, and has been reevaluated as an unjustly neglected major 20th-century opera. A striking scene was recently performed in the BLO/MFA Signature Series event on October 9. Here is an excerpt from a 2012 production in Cologne by La Fura Dels Baus. It shows Oedipus’ triumphant reception in Thebes after he has killed the Sphinx.