When he gets that inkling, in a new opera version "Thebans"
with music by British composer Julian Anderson and a libretto by
Irish playwright Frank McGuinness that had its premiere on
Saturday, baritone Roland Wood expresses his new-found doubt in
words sung to an eerie melody that gives listeners the sinking
feeling that Oedipus is experiencing.
It's a neat trick and Anderson has a few more up his sleeve in
this version of Sophocles's three Oedipus plays combined into
one opera in a production by French-Lebanese director Pierre
Audi at the English National Opera (ENO).
In this version, Oedipus is a no-nonsense, businesslike ruler in
a white suit who wants to get to the bottom of the unsolved
murder of his predecessor, King Laius. The murder has cast a
curse on Thebes, causing women to give birth to "buckets of
blood" and meat to "turn to manure" before it can be eaten.
He will not listen to anyone's advice, including the blind seer
Tiresias, sung with a gloomy voice of authority by English bass
Matthew Best, or his own wife Jocasta, the English mezzo soprano
Susan Bickley, who is, of course, also Oedipus's mother.
"This business has started, finish it," Oedipus says, though
Tiresias has warned him he won't like the way it turns out.
A messenger arrives from Corinth, where Oedipus was raised by
Polybus and his wife who never let on that he was a foundling,
to say the aged ruler is "dead and gone, done and dusted" and
the people of Corinth want Oedipus as their king.
It is the last glimmer of hope for Jocasta, and the offspring of
Oedipus's and her incest, Antigone, Polynices and Eteocles, that
they may escape their ugly fate, but Oedipus dismisses her plea
to flee to Corinth immediately.
Instead he forces a shepherd who has been keeping the secret
that Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta, whom the oracle
had said would kill his father, to reveal that instead of
killing the baby he gave it to the King of Corinth to raise as
Anderson uses a contrabass clarinet plumbing its own lowest
registers to hint at how deep and dark Oedipus's fate will be.
When Jocasta hangs herself at the confirmation she has married
her own son, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes with her
broaches, the chorus sings something resembling a Latin Mass.
[to top of second column]
But there is no redemption for anyone in this fast-paced retelling
of the myth for which Anderson has created a highly original
soundscape, with effective use of the chorus and a wide palette of
In the programme notes, Anderson says "there are no electronics in
this opera" but listeners would be forgiven for thinking the
haunting percussive effects that set the mood for the opening of the
third act in the forest of Colonus, where Oedipus will enter the
underworld, were made by a synthesizer.
By then, of course, the twisted melody Oedipus sang when he first
caught a glimmer of his fate has become his signature tune.
Here's what critics had to say:
Guy Dammann, The Guardian: "Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy is so
revered as a foundational document of western civilization that one
forgets just how exciting the three plays are. One of the great
qualities of Thebans – Julian Anderson’s dazzling new opera, to a
libretto by Frank McGuinness, which received its world premiere on
Saturday night – is that it blows apart this crippling reverence and
presents the drama afresh. Indeed, for a story so well-known that it
embodies as well as dramatizes the idea of fate, the sense of
uncertainty is remarkable."
Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph: "Anderson springs no musical
surprises in Oedipus the King, which all sounds pretty much as one
would imagine - angular, percussive and declamatory, with nods made
stylistically to all the great modern masters from Bartok to
Birtwistle. Throughout, the evocative choral writing is much more
engaging than the solo arioso, which honors the words but almost
never catches lyrical fire. ...In the pit the conductor Edward
Gardner and his orchestra give the score 100 per cent, but the
material remains chilly, and even their commitment can’t give
Thebans the beating heart that it sadly lacks."
(Reporting by Michael Roddy; Editing by Stephen Powell)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.