LONDON (Reuters) - 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 his own.
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 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