Tenor William Burden, bringing “supreme ease and dramatic conviction” to Oedipus Rex.

The specter of COVID still shadowed this event. The company was in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center rather than their home theatre, the Academy of Music. More to the point, the evening was a concert performance rather than a staged one, pairing Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with a short prelude of George Walker’s Lilacs, a setting of Walt Whitman’s famous elegy to Abraham Lincoln.

As you might imagine, the mournful notes of Lilacs and the dark cloud of the Theban plague in Oedipus Rex took on additional resonance in this moment.

Yet there was much to feel reassured and joyous about, though as an evening of drama in music, Oedipus + Lilacs was successful more in parts than as a whole.

I think Oedipus Rex is, for many, a hard-sell work that frankly benefits from a theatrical staging, such as Julie Taymor’s imaginative film version. On its own, the juddery, neurotic quality, mostly horrific but also illuminated by flashes of mordant wit and considerable irony, is a challenge to both performers and audiences.

While I appreciate the idea of prefacing Oedipus, which runs under an hour, with a prelude, Lilacs—an episodic work of introspective lyricism—doesn’t launch the right mood. I find Walker’s instrumental writing, full of gorgeous colorations and sweep, more interesting than the vocal line; here, Tiffany Townsend’s vibrant voice didn’t sound in best form.

Oedipus begins with a short, spoken prologue, and narration continues through the piece. Often it’s performed by an actor. The French by Jean Cocteau is almost always translated into the vernacular, while the rest of the libretto remains in Latin. Here, the narration was provided by storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston, whose sonorous and straightforward delivery, appreciable on its own, missed the work’s febrile electricity.

That shockwave also didn’t entirely come through in the musical performance, which—despite some very fine singing, both by soloists and male chorus, and by conductor Corrado Rovaris, in typically vigorous form—remained more honorable than gripping.

Still, there as much to appreciate. At the top—and reason enough to call the evening a success on their merits alone—were the performances of William Burden (Oedipus) and Rehanna Thelwell (Jocasta). Burden’s burnished lyric tenor, astonishingly untouched by time, remains a glory, and he limned the difficult, angular writing with supreme ease and dramatic conviction.

Thelwell’s opulent, port-wine mezzo is a gorgeous and distinctive instrument; she also has considerable presence. The tricky intervals weren’t always perfectly pitched, and she somewhat under-characterized Jocasta’s more heated outbursts—but this is a voice in a million, and surely a career to watch.

Able support was provided by Mark S. Doss (Créon; also the Messenger), Jonathan Lemalu (Tiresius), and Ethan Burck (the Shepherd). Burck, a Curtis student, heroically stepped in at the last minute. Strangely, given the fine acoustics of Verizon Hall, the balances here sometimes found the orchestra swamping the singers, though Burden in particular rang out with ease in the house.

As I said earlier, the enthusiastic audience applauded for minutes, and clearly would have stayed longer—both a recognition of our beloved home team and a hope for more to come soon. The company plan is to mount a fully staged Rigoletto back at the Academy in April/May.

Meanwhile, Friday’s performance of Oedipus + Lilacs is available for streaming through Opera Philadelphia’s website.