To most of us, "Oedipus" is psychologically the most interesting, or at least the most heavily interpreted, of the surviving Greek tragedies. It is the story of a man who achieves enlightenment and chooses to blind himself, finding the truth of his guilt too horrible to contemplate.
To Igor Stravinsky, whose opera-oratorio "Oedipus Rex" shares the National Symphony's program with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony this week, the story of Oedipus is even more political and religious than psychological. It is a story of society disrupted by the presence of unpunished crime in its midst; also the story of man's helplessness in the grip of the strange powers we call the gods: "those forces that watch us from the other side of death."
All these elements are conveyed with strong impact in Stravinsky's music and suggested staging, which place this work in a hybrid music-theatrical category all its own. The staging is supposed to be almost totally static (a bit more so than in the NSO's performance), the sung text is in Latin, to give the drama an air of timelessness and remoteness. The overtones of the music are heavily religious at the beginning: a chorus that compresses the people's anguish into an almost liturgical appeal for Oedipus to find relief from a plague.
With the entry of Oedipus, the pageant becomes a drama and the theme broadens to the relation between the individual and society. Hysteria enters the mix in the music of his wife (who is also his mother) Jocasta, urging him to ignore the reality of his guilt, though it is becoming painfully obvious.
The end is relief, but anguished relief. Guilt has been recognized and expiated; Oedipus has put out his eyes, using his mother's gold pins, and the people drive him away, "gently, very gently," saying "Farewell, Oedipus, we loved you."
Oedipus had committed patricide and incest, destroying and defiling those who gave him life. This was the worst crime imaginable to the preatomic mind of ancient Greek society. Stravinsky's drama resurrects the values implicit in the myth before it became a commonplace of cocktail party chitchat.
The NSO's performance, conducted by Hugh Wolff, presented the impact of the drama powerfully. The real hero of the performance (as of the music) was the chorus, made up of the men of the Oratorio Society. They sang magnificently throughout, with constantly increasing power as the drama and the music grew more intense. Tenor Jerry Hadley, whose performances here in "The Rake's Progress" are well remembered, brought his full operatic talent to the interpretation of the title role and wrung from it every emotional nuance available. Mezzo-soprano Clarity Carolyne James sang the role of Jocasta, and her singing occasionally lacked focus, verbally and in characterization. But she did generate considerable emotional impact. John Cheek and Ben Holt were excellent and Kevin Langan and Frank Kelley were generally good in supporting roles.
Richard Bauer gave the English narration with exactly the right air of hieratic detachment, modulating properly into a hint of pathos at the final farewell.
Wolff's and the orchestra's interpretation of the Beethoven Fifth were nearly impeccable.