Oedipus schmoedipus

Operas at the BSO, plus the Cantata Singers, the BYSO's Macbeth, and Christine Brewer
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  January 21, 2011

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BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE: At least Michelle Young’s high C at the opening of the fifth door knocked the ball out of the park.

One of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's most famous concerts was one that didn't take place. Nearly 30 years ago, the BSO announced Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, to be staged by Peter Sellars, with Vanessa Redgrave narrating. The BSO canceled the performances fearing protests against Redgrave's pro-Palestinian views. She sued for breach of contract but lost. We all lost.

Stravinsky's re-creation of Sophocles, with Jean Cocteau's French retranslated into Latin, is a key work for the BSO, which gave the American premiere under Serge Koussevitzky in 1928 and followed with numerous memorable performances including one led by Leonard Bernstein in 1972 and a searing version led by Christoph von Dohnányi in 2006.

James Levine began the New Year with a first for both himself and the BSO, a double bill linking Oedipus Rex with Bartók's early (1911–1917) one-act opera, Bluebeard's Castle. These are highly contrasting in their music, the Stravinsky neoclassically spare and ritualistic, the Bartók rich-textured and folk-like, deeply Hungarian in accent. Both have characters who will stop at nothing to learn the truth: Oedipus, of course, about the source of his city's plague; Judith about her new husband's secret past. The truth for both is their doom. Each opera is treated as legend, distanced from the present by a spoken narration. Levine's program note insisted that the Bartók "belongs" on the first half of a program, but we got the reverse order — perhaps because the same two singers had leading roles in both operas (mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung Jocasta and Judith, baritone Albert Dohmen Creon and Bluebeard). What singer could sing anything after the demands of the Bartók? But it made a bleaker way to end an evening.

Levine, in a new, more comfortable-looking chair, led performances of fierce inexorability, with the orchestra at its highest level of commitment (in Bluebeard, James David Christie's climactic organ entrance shook the hall), and the men of John Oliver's Tanglewood Festival Chorus outstanding as Stravinsky's "Greek" chorus of witnesses. The soloists were less satisfying. Tenor Russell Thomas was an unusually young Oedipus (though shouldn't he be young if his wife is actually his mother?), a sympathetic figure with a ringing voice who didn't quite convey the intensity of Oedipus's obsession. Dohmen was almost inaudible as Creon, and though DeYoung was more than audible, her vocal tone (in a role sung with such beauty and dignity by Tatyana Troyanos, Eunice Alberts, Jessye Norman, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) was hard and forced and at first rather unsteady. Her victimized queen was more like a demented Lady Macbeth, writhing and caressing herself. Her high C in Bluebeard knocked the ball out of the park, but her dumbed-down characterization made Judith a coy simp who turns into a shrew rather than an awestruck wife trying to save her husband at any cost.

Hungarian actor Örs Kisfaludy had a field day as the ironic narrator of the Bluebeard Prologue. (Not every Bluebeard includes this section.) Stravinsky wanted his narration to be in the language of the audience, and here we had no less than Frank Langella, who had the cast's most beautiful voice and read with an understated directness. But shouldn't he have urged us to watch the trap "close" (rhyming with "doze") around Oedipus, not, as he pronounced it, rhyming with "dose"?

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Related: Fall Classical Preview: The power of music, Review: Jonathan McPhee & the Longwood Symphony Orchestra at Jordan Hall, Resurrections, More more >
  Topics: Classical , Opera, James Levine, Boston Symphony Orchestra,  More more >
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