LONDON May 4 It takes a while for Oedipus, in
Sophocles's play based on the tragic Greek myth about the King
of Thebes, to catch on that he's the very person the Oracles are
talking about who has offended the gods by killing his father
and marrying his mother.
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.
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 instruments.
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
Here's what critics had to say:
Guy Dammann, The Guardian: "Sophocles's Oedipus trilogy is
so revered as a foundational document of western civilisation
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 dramatises 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
honours 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
(Reporting by Michael Roddy; Editing by Stephen Powell)