'Oedipe': Opera Lafayette's Rare Treasure

Monday, May 16, 2005

Amasterpiece more than two centuries old had its American premiere Saturday evening at the University of Maryland. The performing group Opera Lafayette is still relatively unknown, though rapidly gaining followers, and composer Antonio Sacchini (1730-1786) is hardly a household name though this, his last work, was wildly successful, with 583 performances at the Paris Opera between 1787 and 1844.

Fortunately the concert performance of "Oedipe a Colone," in Dekelboum Concert Hall, was fully worthy of the occasion, and even more fortunately, the performance was recorded for release on the Naxos label.

The opera is based on Sophocles' tragedy "Oedipus at Colonus," the second item in a trilogy that is one of the glories of Greek literature. Many Greek tragedies deal with dysfunctional families, and none more so than that of Oedipus. Having inadvertently murdered his father and committed incest with his mother (who then killed herself), Oedipus, king of Thebes, put his eyes out and was driven into exile by his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who then begin to struggle over succession to the throne.

Polynices (tenor Robert Getchell) comes to Theseus, ruler of Athens (tenor Tony Boutte), for help and becomes engaged to Eriphyle, Theseus's daughter (soprano Kirsten Blaise).

Into this scene wanders blind Oedipus (bass Francois Loup), led by his daughter Antigone (soprano Nathalie Paulin). They are attacked by the people of Colonus, then rescued by Theseus, and, after much effort, Antigone effects a reconciliation between Oedipus and Polynices -- a departure from the Greek legend to give the story a happy ending demanded by 18th-century audiences. All this complex and esoteric material should have been summarized in the program, but not a word of explanation was printed.

Otherwise, the production was outstanding. Getchell's voice and training are exactly right for this repertoire, and Loup gave his usual flawless performance. Washington audiences are more used to seeing him in comic roles, but he proved equally effective in tragedy.

Paulin's Antigone was deeply appealing in voice and stage presence, and the supporting cast was well chosen and expertly prepared. It would be hard to overpraise the work of music director Ryan Brown in leading the period-instrument orchestra and the excellent small chorus.

-- Joseph McLellan

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