The ancient Greeks had many words to distinguish different forms of love, including four main types: Eros (erotic or romantic); Agape (an altruistic, unconditional love); Storge (affection through familiarity, such as family); and Philia (friendship). These different categories are not necessarily exclusive, but the transition from one to another (such as a friend becoming a lover) inevitably involves risk. The greatest danger of all occurs between eros and storge, as immortalized in the famous Oedipus myth – the inspiration for several major operatic works including Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek, Julian Anderson’s recent Thebans, and most notably Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio, Oedipus Rex.
It was the latter that formed the second half of this Proms concert in a fairly full (though not packed) Royal Albert Hall. Like the work itself, I’ll start with the narrator: how refreshing it was to have the narration in English, delivered with great dramatic flair and unfailing clarity by an amplified Rory Kinnear. I have absolutely nothing against Cocteau’s original text, and yes, there’s a certain charm in the French that is perhaps lost in translation. However, in an age where musicians are bending over backwards in their quest for ‘authenticity’ (or at least aim to fulfill the composer’s intentions), it seems perverse to keep using the Cocteau for performances of Oedipus Rex except in French-speaking countries. Stravinsky’s whole point was the juxtaposition between the sung Latin and the spoken vernacular – a dead language and one that is immediately comprehensible to the audience. This emphasizes the fragmentary, non-linear, anti-narrative nature of the text, as well as distancing the chorus and protagonists from the audience.
Tenor Allan Clayton was in fine voice in the challenging title role. With its 50-minute duration, Oedipus Rex may not make extensive demands of its singers in terms of stamina, but you have to deliver right from the very start, as Clayton did admirably. Stravinsky places him high in the voice from the outset with “Liberi, vos liberabo”, and it was instantly clear that Clayton’s rock-solid vocal support would see him through to the end. Admittedly, he was more comfortable in the higher register than the lower, but this suited the part well. He also had the vocal resources to create some truly memorable moments, such as the beautifully placed “Invida fortunam odit”, and the heroic, repeated utterances of “A me” (a top A) slightly later – this guy is a king, and no mistaking. In his final passage, I relished Clayton’s hard ‘c’ phonetics – “Concubui cui…Kekidi quem…”, which brilliantly set up his sweetly luminous final line: “Lux facta est”.
Despite being an alto rather than a mezzo-soprano, Hilary Summers sang the role of Jocasta displaying no signs of strain in the upper register. Indeed, her top A – as she passionately declaimed “Laius”, recalling her late husband’s death at the crossroads – was radiant. Several qualities in particular made her a suitable Jocasta: having sung works by many contemporary composers such as Boulez and Benjamin, she was able to handle Stravinsky’s often-chromatic writing with relative ease, and her pitch-centredness was absolutely spot-on. This was further aided by her judicious use (and control) of vibrato – I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a pure-sounding Jocasta. She offered a very feminine reading, which shone out in this otherwise testosterone-fuelled drama. The only downside to this was that occasionally she was a little too mellow, and one could see conductor Sakari Oramo actively trying to quieten the orchestra every so often. Her volume was reasonable from where I was sitting, but any further back and I think I’d have struggled to hear certain passages.
At the other end of the centre-of-pitch spectrum was Juha Uusitalo as Creon, who sounded frankly bizarre: half the time I couldn’t hear him for the orchestra, and the rest of the time he sounded almost drunk. Strange glissandi and lack of tonal clarity obscured the pitch so much that if I didn’t know the work, it would have been impossible to ascertain exactly what the notes were he was attempting to sing. Fortunately Creon’s appearance is so brief that this didn’t greatly impair the performance, and the remaining soloists were all fine: Brindley Sherratt’s Tiresias enjoyed some typically rich bass sonorities, while Duncan Rock as the Messenger and Samuel Boden as the Shepherd projected well in their small but significant roles.
The chorus, comprising the male voices from the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus had clearly been very well drilled. Everyone sang from music (including the soloists), but this doesn’t particularly matter for Oedipus Rex, and if anything it aids the sense of dramatic detachment. The “Gloria” chorus that bridges Acts I and II was brilliantly triumphant, while the furtive, pianissimo singing as the chorus sent its former king into exile set just the right tone for the unsettling conclusion. Intonation was excellent, even when the tenors were stretched to their limits in terms of pitch. Oramo maintained a good sense of pace – not an easy task in this work – and ensemble was generally very good.
Stravinsky’s anti-hero was preceded by two very different works in the first half of the concert: the emphatically heroic figure at the centre of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, followed by the UK premiere of Brett Dean’s Electric Preludes, for electric violin and string orchestra. After a worryingly lethargic opening to the Beethoven (think Karajan rather than Gardiner or Harnoncourt), the pace soon picked up, and the overture received an energetic reading from the BBC Symphony Orchestra who, it should be noted, were on top form throughout the whole evening.
The second work was the most controversial of the evening, and as I went out during the interval I heard one or two utterances of “what a load of rubbish” from several, more senior members of the audience. I was actually quite impressed by Electric Preludes – possibly more by the extraordinary array of sonic effects rather than the work itself. I must admit, I approached it with great reservations: even though electric violins have been around since the 1930s, I have yet to hear one piece written for the instrument that really packs a punch musically – one that establishes itself in the musical canon of string concertos. Several electric violin works may have received high-profile recordings, such as Nico Muhly’s Seeing is Believing or John Adams’ Dharma at Big Sur (a huge disappointment after his Violin Concerto), but these and others sound rhapsodic in a rather confused and unfocused way. Although I’d want to hear it several more times before forming a proper opinion, I can at least say that in this work, Dean (a former violist for the Berlin Philharmonic) has come closer than any other composer in convincing me of the instrument’s merits. Its six-movement structure helped the 25-minute duration fly by, and the technical demands met by soloist Francesco D’Orazio, making his Proms debut, were staggering. A special credit is also due to the technical team situated at a desk at the back of the arena behind the prommers, which was responsible for altering the vast panoply of sounds emitted from D’Orazio’s remarkable instrument. Is it going to be a ‘hit’? Only time will tell, but Dean has managed to make at least one listener challenge his prejudices about the electric violin.