Oedipus Rex comes from Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, a time of creative activity and achievement for the composer. The Ancient Greek tragedy by the great Sophocles inspired him greatly, to the extent he considered producing the opera-oratorio in the original Greek. Jean Cocteau created a French libretto based on the play, and friar Jean Daniélou then translated it into Latin in order to convey the work’s ancient origin. The premiere took place on 30 May 1927 at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris. It was a simple oratorio performance that showcased Stravinsky’s music without visual accompaniment. The Vienna State Opera created the first stage production on 23 February 1928. Rome’s Teatro Costanzi now shows Oedipus Rex in its full dramatic and theatrical glory.
The flow of Oedipus Rex stays near the Ancient Greek tradition where a Narrator plays a central role in the action. He brings audiences into the drama’s fabula and accompanies them as the plot unfolds, always explaining events and the characters’ motivations. The action is set in ancient Thebes, a city overcome by plague. King Oedipus receives word from the Delphi Oracle that the epidemic is divine punishment for the murder of Thebes’ old King Laius. The gods’ curse will be lifted as soon as the murderer is found and his crime – avenged. Oedipus sets himself on the killer’s trail, but numerous confrontations with the noblemen around him and a horrific revelation lead him to uncover a dark and shocking secret about himself that will lead him to a tragic downfall.
In Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky combines the ancient tradition with modern neoclassical sensibilities seamlessly. He retains classic narrative elements such as the Narrator and the chorus, but his vibrant scoring and knack for operatic dramatization bring them right into the 20th century. The orchestration is a fusion of classical tropes and contemporary musical styles, and there are numerous clever counterpoints between the ancient Latin text and the modern melodies. Teatro Costanzi revives a truly special work from Stravinsky’s rich catalogue.