Trouble in Thebes

thebesWhat to do with all those glorious short operas: play them alone or find companion pieces?  At the Met one could once have heard double features of Salome and Cavalleria rusticana or, even jollier, Elektra and Amelia Goes to the Ball.  This week I offer two of my favorites with absolutely nothing in common other than they are masterworks: Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. 

The practice of odd double servings was by no means limited to the Met.  In recent seasons you could see at Wiener Staatsoper Schoenberg’s Jakobsleiter coupled with Gianni Schicchi or Janá?ek’s Osud played against Puccini’s Le villi.

And is Oedipus rex, which premiered in 1927 in Paris, even an opera?  Igor Federovitch’s Stravinsky: A Practical Guide to Publications of His Music classifies it as “opera; oratorio,” and most productions I’ve seen of this static work tend to the latter.  Its very nature makes it difficult to classify: the opera is sung in Latin to a text by Jean Cocteau derived from Sophocles with two lengthy spoken sections in which most of the action is related, written in French but to be delivered in the vernacular of the audience.  The singing is mostly descriptions of and reactions to events which occur offstage.

Whether given in concert or in a staged production, its magnificence cannot be denied, from the great sweeping choral outburst on the downbeat, through Jocaste’s at once beautiful, eerie, and frightening scena and duet with her husband/son, to the solemn ending.

Daniele Gatti leads a powerful cast in a 2014 performance headed by versatile Austrian tenor Nikolai Schukoff, who has proven himself a great Parsifal but also adept in Verdi and Britten (you can find his Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw on my Mixcloud site).  Sonia Ganasi is tender, fierce, and nicely unhinged as Jocasta.  Basso of the moment Georg Zeppenfeld is Tirésias, and Met stalwart John Relyea takes on Créon and the Messenger.

On the occasion of the Brandeis University premiere of Trouble in Tahiti a quarter of a century after Oedipus rex bowed, Bernstein had this to say about his newest work: “It’s a lightweight piece.  The whole thing is popular-song inspired and the roots are in musical comedy or, even better, the American musical theater.”

But what becomes immediately apparent upon listening to the opera today is that its concerns with postwar American life, its domesticity and culture, its sins and omissions, have given this deft picture of suburbia an even greater significance than Bernstein could then have intended.

Flip on the irony switch from the get-go with the jazzy radio jingle-inspired Trio, a sort of Greek chorus which provides commentary throughout the 45-minute work, divided into a prelude and seven scenes by the composer who also served as librettist.  Chances are if you’ve never heard the entire work, you know its virtuoso showpiece, Dinah’s aria “What a movie!” which has been included on recitals of American music, with a very special performance by Dawn Upshaw on a Nonesuch CD.

Like the Stravinsky, the work, dedicated to Marc Blitzstein, defies categorization: it was telecast nationally in the USA by NBC in the year of its premiere, ran on Broadway in 1955, was presented by New York City Opera in 1958, and eventually revised and incorporated into Bernstein’s 1983 full-length opera A Quiet Place.

This week’s performance comes from a 2010 Southbank Centre semi-staged production by the Psappha New Music Ensemble and a cast of young – but very able – singers conducted by Nicholas Kok.