Salonen and Sellars effectively link Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Oedipus Rex, Symphony of Psalms: Soloists, San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 11.6.2022. (HS)

(l-r) Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts, Sean Pannikar (Oedipus), Willard White (Creon), Lauren Jenkins and Breezy Leigh (Oedipus’s daughters) (c) Kristen Loken

Director – Peter Sellars
Lighting – James F. Ingalls
Costumes – Helene Siebrits
Chorus director – Andrew Whitfield

Oedipus – Sean Panikkar
Jocasta – J’Nai Bridges
Creon/Messenger/Tiresias – Willard White
Shepherd – Jose Simerilla Romero
Antigone – Breezy Leigh (actor)
Ismene – Laurel Jenkins (dancer)

In 1925, composer Igor Stravinsky enlisted dramatist Jean Cocteau to write a libretto for an opera based on Sophocles’s telling of the Oedipus story. Ripe for psychological drama, it is a gruesome tale of a king too clever for his own good, whose complicated and violent past finally catches up with him.

The piece debuted in 1927 in concert form. The Cocteau-Stravinsky stage directions pretty much default to an oratorio style with little action. In Greek tragedy style, the violence takes place off stage in any case.

Director Peter Sellars collaborated with Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2009, when the latter was music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to stage the piece concert-style, following the oratorio with the composer’s Symphony of Psalms. Not only does this strategy extend the opera’s 50-minute running time to a full evening, linking the two pieces created the most effective element of San Francisco Symphony’s presentation, seen and heard Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall. The chorus plays a decisive role in both works – all men in Oedipus, with women added for the Psalms to cast a soothing balm over the tragedy.

The words of the oratorio and the psalms are all in Latin (another link between these two works), but Stravinsky and Cocteau let a narrator tell the story in the audience’s language. In this production, the narrator is Oedipus’s daughter Antigone, played with stentorian vigor by actor Breezy Leigh (a regular on the Amazon Prime TV series Baby Mama Drama).

Plenty goes on visually and dramatically. A decidedly African aura creates timeless, exotic visuals: each character enters accompanied by a hand-held individual sculpture in African style and is ushered to a seat designed with a distinct African motif. (Why African? Perhaps to underline the exotic setting? Ancient Thebes was in Greece, but there is also a Thebes in Egypt. Anyway, it was eye-catching.) The singers, in modern dress, interact with each other to create mini-scenes, often playing out what the narrator has just described.

After intermission, Leigh returns before the Psalms to add more narration that describes Oedipus’s exile as a blind beggar and his death. He enters silently, led by his other daughter, Ismene, played by dancer Laurel Jenkins (whose dance scene ends the oratorio with flair and tremendous emotional intensity). She leads him painstakingly into a rectangle of light, where he remains until the end.

In Oedipus, the chorus doesn’t just sing: it gesticulates, it gyrates and the singers collapse into their seats and leap to their feet. Chorus director Andrew Whitfield had the men articulating the music with laudable precision and presence. Appropriately, they are less active during the psalms.

If all that can, at times, be distracting, Salonen’s ability to drive the music with great expression, precision and sonic variety consistently grabs the audience’s attention. Both pieces find Stravinsky at his most poetic, casting references within his neoclassical style to a range of older music, but never quite letting it devolve into pastiche. Instead, this adds a variety of flavors to each scene, and Salonen and the orchestra captured them perfectly.

The entire cast delivered the music and their characterizations with disarming honesty and integrity, most impressively done by ageless bass-baritone Willard White. He carried three roles, entering first as Oedipus’s brother-in-law, Creon, then the Messenger and the soothsayer, Tiresias, each with a distinctive manner and all with resonance and vocal precision.

In the title role, tenor Sean Panikkar (whose San Francisco ties include a stint in San Francisco Opera’s Merola program) delivered his melodic lines with nobility and descended perceptibly into tragedy as the king realizes he cannot find a clever way to avoid the inevitable. Just as convincing was mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges as Jocasta, his devoted queen, who, he learns too late, is also his mother. A regular at San Francisco Opera, Bridges’s regal presence and seamless range brought depth to the character’s music.

Tenor Jose Simerilla Romero executed the Shepherd’s brief scene with polish.

Salonen launched into the Symphony of Psalms with appropriate gloom for the laments of Psalm 38, which describe the Israelites’ pain in exile to the desert – a nice parallel to Oedipus’s situation. The fugue that followed, to the demand in Psalm 39 to know how one’s life will end, stirred up plenty of angst, which led to Stravinsky’s gorgeous setting of the Alleluia of Psalm 150, all about praising the Lord through music.

That Alleluia is, for me, one of the most glorious passages in music, more of a quiet prayer of thanks than the joyful burst most composers give an alleluia. The paeans to music that follow reflect, in Stravinsky’s music, more honesty, directness and resonance after all of the Oedipus music’s neo-classical stylization. The result was profound and moving, in a way the oratorio didn’t quite achieve.

Harvey Steiman 

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