For this, one of his numerous 70th Birthday concerts, Sir John Eliot Gardiner chose to deliver an all-Stravinsky programme with an ancient Greek theme: Apollon musagète, and Oedipus Rex. Joining him onstage were the London Symphony Orchestra and, for the second work, the gentlemen of the conductor’s own Monteverdi Choir – a vocal ensemble beyond superlatives. This combination of conductor and ensembles has worked well in the past in other Stravinskian repertoire, including one of the best versions of the Symphony of Psalms I have ever heard (originally on DG but re-released at budget price on Brilliant Classics: 9015) and arguably the greatest CD-recording of The Rake’s Progress (DG 459 648-2). For the most part, the high standard of those recordings was evident last night in London’s Barbican Hall.
I have loved Apollon musagète ever since I first performed in it as an undergraduate. The transparency of the string textures is beguiling, and Stravinsky somehow manages to maintain the typical coolness of his style, even with instruments so readily associated with warmth. In general, the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra evoked this ancient Greek air with the utmost classical grace, though there were times where the overall effect was just a little full-fat for my taste. Vibrato was used judiciously but by no means sparingly (after all, this wasn’t Norrington), and the texture just seemed rather too thick from time to time, lacking that cool, classical ideal. Gardiner situated the violas and cellos around him in an inner semicircle, with the violins standing and forming an outer semicircle behind them, and the four double basses placed behind the violins, in the middle. This approach worked well on two counts: first, it engendered a near-perfect balance between the string sections, with harmonies I had previously never noticed coming to the fore; and second, it emphasized the concertante sections of the work, especially between the leader of the firsts (on the left of the stage) and the leader of the seconds (on the right). These instrumental soloists – comprising the leaders of each string section – were all superb, and a particular mention should be made of the principal violinist, Tomo Keller, who assumed the textless role of Apollo with effortless brilliance, aided by a rock-solid technique: the intonation of his double-stops was perfect, while harmonics rang out with bell-like resonance.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, based on Sophocles’s tragedy. Despite its Greek origin, Stravinsky and his collaborator Jean Cocteau famously set the Oedipus story to a Latin text as “a medium not dead, but turned to stone… immune from all risk of vulgarisation”. Stone – or more specifically, stasis – is the essence of this not-quite-opera, whose drama is frequently interrupted by a narrator, and whose climaxes are revealed by this narrator just before they occur. This pronounced, spoken role was undertaken by actress Fanny Ardant, whose smoky French accent brought home the Cocteau influence to great effect. Wonderfully characterful though she was, I’ve never quite understood the widespread use of mainlining Cocteau’s original French: the whole point of the narration is to explain the plot to the audience, because the plot is convoluted and the text is in Latin. Stravinsky himself loathed Cocteau’s narration, accusing it of becoming too highbrow, and surely it would make far more sense for it to be spoken in the language of wherever it is being performed? The last time I saw Oedipus Rex at the Barbican was with Gergiev (part of his Debussy-Prokofiev-Stravinsky season a few years ago), with Simon Callow as the English narrator, and personally I found that in no way diminished the aesthetic value of the piece.
All of the male singers, including the choir, were dressed in black, with ghostly-white face-paint and black paint smeared on the sides of their cheeks – rather like sideburns. As soon as they came on the stage looking like this, I was instantly reminded of what is undoubtedly the benchmark video recording of this work, from the 1992 Saito Kinen Festival under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, and boasting a cast that includes Jessye Norman as Jocasta, Philip Langridge as Oedipus and Bryn Terfel as Creon (Philips 0743077). When Gidon Saks entered as Creon, adorned with mask-like silver face-paint and holding out his arms in simple, wooden gestures, it became even more obvious that the visual aspect of this performance was inspired by that remarkable Japanese production, and it was certainly none the worse for that.
Commanding though Saks looked, however, in terms of sound he was rather swamped by the orchestra. He was, to be fair, on the other side of the stage to where I was sitting, but the imbalance really was quite severe. The same was true of the more substantial role of Jocasta, the lone female singer in this male-dominated work, sung by Jennifer Johnston. She seemed to handle the fiendish chromaticism of the part fairly well, and her repeated, deep, chesty delivery of “Oracula” made it perfectly clear what she thought of oracles without the need of the surtitles. Nevertheless, she was rather unpowered too often, even though she was singing in the middle of the stage, next to Gardiner.
No such projection troubles plagued Stuart Skelton as Oedipus, who was exemplary in the role. Indeed, he was just as superb as he was in Peter Grimes at last year’s Proms – the only time I have awarded 5 stars in a review. The strength and quality of his tone in the higher tessitura was incredible, right from his very opening line. He has all the vocal strength of a Heldentenor, but also possesses a timbre light enough for roles such as these – not something you come across very often. Some of his more florid, coloratura passages were admittedly smudged a little, but not to the point of distraction, and throughout he was every bit the king: majestic, arrogant, flawed, and ultimately doomed.
Apart from sounding a little heavy-handed, as I have mentioned, the London Symphony Orchestra really were firing on all four cylinders: dynamic, playful woodwinds, agile strings, and the brass fanfares at the end could scarcely have been bettered. Similarly the chorus was ultra-disciplined and in many ways stole the show. The two soloists taken from the Monteverdi Choir, tenor Alex Ashworth and the fantastically rich bass of David Shipley, taking the roles of the shepherd and the messenger respectively, provided luxury casting for these minor characters. Gardiner conducted with typical authority, and kept ensemble taut and pacing slick. All the components were excellent: it was simply the balance between two of the soloists and the orchestra that let it down slightly.
I would like to give the last word to those who contribute so much to the atmosphere of musical performances yet so often go unnoticed or unaccredited. I could not find the names of the lighting engineers in the programme, but let me state how brilliantly they executed their roles. The entire performance was set in very dimmed lighting, to the extent that the orchestral players had to use individual music stand lights. The choir, situated on the right of the stage, was sitting in darkness, but would stand and have a dramatic spotlight suddenly shone upon them when they sang. The same was true for the soloists. This was a very effective move, and very in-line with ancient Greek theatre, where the crowd both interacts with yet remains distinct from the main characters, and comments on the drama. As the men lamented the fate of Oedipus at the end, their fallen king, now silent, appeared at the other side of the stage, his cheeks red with blood, until all that was left was that relentless, haunting minor third in the timpani. At the final stroke of the drumstick, every light went out (synchronized to perfection with the timpani), leaving the audience to ponder the wretched figure’s demise in a bleak, eerie darkness.
Photographs © John Wright (Skelton), Johan Persson (Saks)