in: Reviews

January 8, 2011

Dark Psychology of Two Opera Masterpieces

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Michelle DeYoung as Jocasta and Russell Thomas as Oedipus in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (Michael Lutch photo)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by James Levine, presented concert performances of two short yet powerful operas by 20th-century giants: Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (libretto by Jean Cocteau and Jean Daniélou) and Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (libretto by Béla Belázs) on Thursday evening, Jan. 6.

In many ways, these two works are rather alike: they were both written around the same time — the Stravinsky in 1927, the Bartók in 1911; both are retellings of much older stories; both address topics of dark, psychological depth; and both were conceived with minimal staging that makes them ideal for concert presentation. Even the structures of the two are similar in that each story is told using small, fairly symmetrical dramatic events that are linked together to create a whole. However, these similarities are, for the most part, peripheral. When it comes to musical and dramatic expression, to the communication of characters’ thoughts and feelings, the two works could hardly be more different. In the largest-scale sense, the BSO’s performance was a great success in that it brought these differences to the fore, allowing each work to display its character to the fullest.

Though Stravinsky is an uncontested master of technique — harmonic, rhythmic, instrumental, when it comes to emotional expression, his music is, by his own admission, somewhat dispassionate. This characteristic is particularly evident in his vocal writing. The story of Oedipus Rex is fraught with visceral tension; but Stravinsky’s writing, though compelling and often exciting, treats this tension with an almost frigid aloofness. It is therefore up to the singers to infuse the characters with emotive dimensions. Tenor Russell Thomas, in the role of Oedipus, did just that. With his bright yet beefy voice, he used the part’s strenuously high tessitura to take his character into flights of boldness, anger, fear, and despair. His Rex was a king not only straining against the cold inevitability of fate, but also against the stark impartiality of the music he was singing, and though Oedipus loses his battle, Thomas triumphed in his. So, too, did mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who was able to give Jocasta an unexpected level of depth. This role is perhaps the most difficult in the opera; from a narrative standpoint, she is a powerful and pivotal presence, but the singer only gets one aria and a duet to establish that presence musically. DeYoung’s take on Jocasta was subtly sultry and a bit off kilter; an unusual dramatic choice, but one that she carried out beautifully and that gave the character much more dimension than does the music. The other roles are given even less time to establish their import, presenting a challenge to those singing these parts — one that was difficult to overcome in this performance. Baritone Albert Dohmen as both Creon and the Messenger seemed to be swallowed up by the orchestra most of the time. Similarly, Raymond Aceto’s Tiresias was powerfully declamatory, but he had difficulty getting the lower pitches to speak. And the role of the Sheppard is simply too small to allow Mathew Plank’s mournful tenor voice to bring the depth to the music that it could have. The Narrator was convincingly read by actor Frank Langella. His voice was strong and his approach lent a stalwart distance to the part that was appropriately Greek-Chorus-like.

It might be interesting to mention that, in 1982, a scheduled BSO performance of Oedipus Rex with intended narrator Vanessa Redgrave was cancelled because of the actress’s pro-Palestinian views. Redgrave brought suit against the BSO’s administration for violation of her rights under the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Act; but in 1987, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the BSO. It was a sad contradiction that such a cosmopolitan work — a Russian composer’s setting of a Greek tragedy with a French libretto translated into Latin — should fall victim to such provincial politics. Thankfully, this performance was spared the pettiness. (Note: While this reviewer does not know Mr. Langella’s politics, he does know that, when it comes to music-making, they are irrelevant.)

James Levine with Michelle De Young as Judith and Albert Dohmen as Bluebeard in Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Michael J. Lutch photo)

In terms of expression and depth of feeling, Bartók’s music is the polar opposite of Stravinsky’s. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is masterpiece of emotional richness. While his orchestration is not as ambitious as Stravinsky’s, it does serve a more integrated dramatic role: sensuous, lush, and sometimes haunting strings convey sadness, loneliness, and deep internal conflict; bright, dazzling winds color the bloodily bejeweled surroundings of the castle and its inhabitant’s soul; and huge, solid brasses give tangible weight to the cold pomposity of it all. Levine seemed particularly in his element here as he exploited all the boldness and subtleties of this music, giving it a multilayered character that is often missing in other performances. Though Albert Dohmen’s Creon might not have been entirely successful, he more than made up for it with his portrayal of Bluebeard. With his edgy, full-bodied voice, Dohmen was able to conjure a man who is cold and emotionless on the outside, who wants so desperately to be loved, yet cannot show his desperation for fear of losing control to guilt. Those psychological layers are built into the music, but it takes a true artist to convey them as successfully as Dohmen did. The real star in this performance, however, was Michelle DeYoung. Judith’s part is technically much more varied and complex than Bluebeard’s, reflecting the emotional waves and troughs of this character. DeYoung’s Judith was innocent, pleading, slightly coy, ever more insistent, and finally terrified. It was in large part due to her that the listener could forget this performance was not staged and instead imagine a darkly bright, coldly burning setting for this magnificent work.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

22 Comments

  1. A number of BMInt readers were probably not around in 1982 when a scheduled performance at the Boston Symphony Orchestra of Oedipus Rex, with intended narrator Vanessa Redgrave, was canceled because of the actress’s pro-Palestinian views. Although offered her fee of $31,000, Redgrave brought suit against the BSO for breach of her civil rights and other causes.

    In 1988, the United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit, found for the BSO, based on a 1987 reading by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: “where liability on a claim under the act was based upon the defendant’s acquiescence to third-party pressure, it was not a defense for the defendant to show that its actions were independently motivated by additional concerns such as the threat of economic loss, physical safety, or particular concerns about the defendant’s course of business…” Redgrave was awarded $100.

    I happened to attend the BSO on the night it had been scheduled and was one of several persons interviewed by TV reporters at the Massachusetts Ave. entrance.

    An excellent overview of that controversy is an article by Marjorie Heims, “Vanessa Redgrave v. Boston Symphony Orchestra: Federalism, Forced Speech, and the Emergence of the Redgrave Defense,” in Boston College Law Review, volume 30, Issue 5 Number 5 (1989). As Staff Counsel on the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Heins participated in drafting amicus curiae briefs.

    Of particular interest are the court testimonies of Peter Sellars and Seiji Ozawa. The link is here: http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/bclr/vol30/iss5/2.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — January 8, 2011 at 12:39 am

  2. I don’t agree with Tom that the BSO’s decision to cancel the 1982 production of Oedipus Rex was petty. Vanessa Redgrave’s pro Palestinian speech was certainly protected by the US Constitution, but the BSO players who found it intolerable may be forgiven for not wishing to work with her. Add to the equation Stravinsky’s own virulent (and self-serving) antisemitism, and one can better understand the feelings of the BSO refusenicks.

    An actor’s ability to inhabit a role can be just as severely handicapped by political baggage as by unfortunate type casting.

    At about the same time as the Affaire Redgrave, former enfant terrible director (where is he now?) Peter Sellars, was semi-staging a performance of Handel’s Saul by the Cantata Singers. When he asked the members of the Chorus of Israelites to writhe on the floor chasing loose change, the singers refused to go along with the insulting conceit. Was Sellars’ss free speech violated in that incident?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 8, 2011 at 10:06 am

  3. Thanks so much for this review Tom; I particularly enjoyed your description and review of the Bartok!

    “Con permisso,” I would like to point out a few things about the Stravinsky as relates to the BSO’s performance. As you mentioned, Stravinsky strove for “dispassion” in his dramatic works; this aim, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for anti-expressionism. What the composer opposed was the subjectivism of the Classic and Romantic periods, which according to his point of view, was inextricably connected to individualism. Therefore, in works such as Oedipus, The Rake’s Progress, and Les Noces, Stravinsky strove to recreate the characters’ reality, rather than interpreting them according his his own “contemporary” sensibility. The composer’s choice to translate Cocteau’s French into a dead language (i.e. Latin) was the starting point, from which Stravinsky creates separation from the present by placing his “statuesque” characters not into an “action drama, but a still life.” (These descriptions come from the composer’s interviews with Robert Craft). Therefore, the soloists’ attempts to “dramatize” the characters were, in my opinion, anti-Stravinskian. In particular, I felt that DeYoung’s portrayal of Jocasta, particularly through her use of comportment and gesture, was a complete perversion of the Stravinskian ethos, better suited to Wagner or Richard Strauss.

    I hope you will pardon my waxing a bit “soap box-y,” but I tend to agree with Stravinsky that drama can be impactful without the subjectivity of 19th-century emotionalism. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy the operas of Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner, but I feel the listener can also moved by music which appeals to the soul primarily through the mind.

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — January 8, 2011 at 5:03 pm

  4. From Lee Eiseman’s comment:

    “enfant terrible director (where is he now?) Peter Sellars”

    I believe he is directing “Nixon in China” at the Metropolitan Opera this season.

    Comment by Anti-lee — January 8, 2011 at 8:09 pm

  5. Saw this show on Saturday night- it was very dramatically performed. No one held back- quite an evening.

    The BSO organ was amazing. DeYoung and Dohman set new standards for the roles. But the biggest ovation went to the men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 8, 2011 at 11:21 pm

  6. From the reviewer to Lee: For me the issue isn’t so much about free speech as it is about allowing political views to shanghai music that has nothing to do with those politics. Haydn’s Kaiserquartet is still played regularly despite the fact that the second movement’s theme (taken from a song he wrote earlier praising the Kaiser) ended up the national anthem of Germany under the Nazis. That’s a far more close and fraught association than a person simply showing support for one group of people that a lot of others happen to be against, none of which come up in the music at all. And yet no one would think to cancel a performance of the Haydn, and rightly so. My point was that, though music never happens in a vacuum, it would be best to let it rather than political hot air fill that vacuum. Keep the artistry on the stage and the politics in the trenches.

    To Joel: Thank you for your insightful comment. I hear what you’re saying and know that Stravinsky certainly accomplished his aesthetic here. What doesn’t make sense to me is the idea that trying to recreate a character’s reality precludes subjectivism or individualism. All these characters are individuals and have subjective viewpoints. Absent the characters themselves, the people playing them have to recreate that subjectivity, or else they become wooden and, to me at least, uncompelling. But I fully admit that my sensibilities are firmly rooted in Romanticism.

    Comment by Tom Schnauber — January 9, 2011 at 12:11 am

  7. Tom-

    In the case of the previous Oedipus Rex the transcript shows that the BSO agreed with you and simply did not wish to see Symphony Hall turned into a trench. Click on Toni’s attachment and read it- it’s quite interesting

    On Joel’s comment I had an interesting discussion tonight at the BSO tonight with Scott Wheeler. His take on Stravinsky’s so-called rejection of passionate performances was that Stravinsky was reacting against the sorts of textural exaggerations and embellishments in which 19th and early 20th century performers engaged. Today’s performers if anything err on the side of a too literal textural fidelity and no longer need to be reined in. Furthermore, while averring expression in his scores, he certainly employed it in his performances.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 9, 2011 at 12:23 am

  8. Tom & Lee:

    Thanks so much for your responses! You’re both right that there will always be a disconnect between Stravinsky’s ideal of objectivism and the reality of performance, as the latter will always include a certain degree of subjectivity, as it is given by a “performance subject” (i.e. the performer). This being said, I do feel that Stravinsky’s objectivist aims are too easily and conveniently cast aside in modern performances (in this case turning the composer’s “statueseque still life” of Jocasta into a characterization closer to a “tortured Brunnhilde”), and I suspect that a pro-Romantic bias, whether conscious or unconscious, may be to blame.

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — January 9, 2011 at 12:45 pm

  9. Wow! What a great discussion. Keep it up, guys. I love it.
    I’m about to pull out my Shaw on Music…I do remember he deplored those Italian tenors of his day who, for their arias, would move front and center, face the audience, sing, and then, if they were dying, have to creep offstage “amidst (?) the calves of the multitude.” Not “textural exaggerations and embellishments,” perhaps, but assuredly in the realm of distinctly personal “performances.”

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — January 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm

  10. *** Lee Eiseman wrote: I don’t agree with Tom that the BSO’s decision to cancel the 1982 production of Oedipus Rex was petty. Vanessa Redgrave’s pro Palestinian speech was certainly protected by the US Constitution, but the BSO players who found it intolerable may be forgiven for not wishing to work with her. Add to the equation Stravinsky’s own virulent (and self-serving) antisemitism, and one can better understand the feelings of the BSO refusenicks.

    I do not know what TRULY motivated BSO players not willing to work with Vanessa Redgrave. I was not around during the that time and the coverage that I was able to found I feel is inadequate to get true feeling of the events. There are two things that I would like to note however.

    1) It is very sad that the Stravinsky anti-semitism was brought to surface as it not spouse to be a subject at all.

    2) I think BSO withdraw in that time demonstrated BSO as weak musicians. Musicians are not “public voters” and no one care about their political or social inclinations. However, history of musical performances has a great number of wonderful examples when musicians were not in agreement with different circumstances and were able by PLAYING to express those disparities. THAT – what I call a professional musicianship of a high caliber. A history lost an opportunity to have a “might be interesting concert”, sad indeed.

    I would certainly like do not demean BSO players to a “notes rendering machine”. However, let face it, those people are in BSO only because they are able to convey variety of human expressions by auditable harmonics, and this is what they need to do. If BSO members are so willing their political views to be heard then the need to quite what they do and to run for public office.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 10, 2011 at 8:33 am

  11. It seems the reviewer didn’t notice that there was a chorus on stage during the Stravinsky. They were excellent.

    Comment by Audience Member — January 10, 2011 at 12:28 pm

  12. Romy, I think any musician is a human being first of all. On being told to perform a musical work that is utterly repugnant to his/her moral convictions, any player has the right to refuse. Art cannot be divorced from other human values. Were I an orchestra player, and were I ordered by management to play the Horst Wessel Lied, I’d walk away.

    On the other hand, in the Redgrave case, which I remember pretty well, I think the BSO players were simply wrong. Why is being pro-Palestinian necessarily a symptom of antisemitism? One can (and should IMO) feel sympathy for both the peoples/nations locked into that horrible and absurd conflict.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — January 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm

  13. Of course pro-Palestinian sentiments need not be anti-Semitic. Israeli’s Jews and Arab Palestinians are both Semites. The problem with Redgrave’s utterances for the refusenicks was her Marxist rhetoric replete with references to Zionist thugs. Were Redgrave less theatrically convincing in her politics her views would have been no bar to a partnership with the BSO players.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 10, 2011 at 12:55 pm

  14. Ms. Redgrave was, as I understand it, not merely pro-Palestinian, but pro-PLO. Support for an organization with the avowed purpose of destroying the State of Israel is, IMO, quite different from mere sympathy for the Palestinian people.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm

  15. And yes, there was a chorus on stage for the Stravinsky; and I agree that they were excellent. Maybe that is so much expected that they only need to be mentioned if they are less than excellent.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 10, 2011 at 8:34 pm

  16. Why is being pro-Palestinian necessarily a symptom of antisemitism? One can (and should IMO) feel sympathy for both the peoples/nations locked into that horrible and absurd conflict.

    This is how American propaganda spins it for US gullible US citizens.

    Ms. Redgrave was, as I understand it, not merely pro-Palestinian, but pro-PLO. Support for an organization with the avowed purpose of destroying the State of Israel is, IMO, quite different from mere sympathy for the Palestinian people.

    …and since when we in US punish people for their believes? Actions are punishable, not the believes and as far as I know Ms. Redgrave actions were perfectly legitimate. From what I learned about the accident the problem was not with Ms. Redgrave and not with the “BSO member” but in a very few selected members of musicians and the Board who decided to pimp own ethnicity. Very sad. I am glad that Ms. Redgrave sued and that she won. Shame that BSO administration and musicians did not have guts to sustain the concert. So, many faces of the Oedipus Rex…Wagner, Chopin, Stravinsky, Liszt….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm

  17. ”Were I an orchestra player, and were I ordered by management to play the Horst Wessel Lied, I’d walk away.”

    …and that would be perfectly fine. You might go away, I might walk away, whoever else might walk away, some will stay… There is a difference between “you walk away” and you making threats that if Horst Wessel Lied be played then streets around Symphony Hall will be blooded. From what I read the concert was canceled not because the Ms. Redgrave views but because BSO administration did not want more of that “patriotism” be expressed. If I ran BSO I would proceed with concert, substituting the walked away musicians….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 10, 2011 at 11:55 pm

  18. Why does Romy think that Redgrave “won?” Read the attached article in Toni’s comment.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 11, 2011 at 9:10 am

  19. *** Why does Romy think that Redgrave “won?” Read the attached article in Toni’s comment.

    Because the Redgrave’s events very much highlighted the hypocrisy and unfairness of the specific US sentiments that not only ruin Mideast but continue to be a world-problem today.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 11, 2011 at 9:42 am

  20. Thanks, Bettina, for the link. Some of it made for very interesting reading. It explains the layers of complexities of the case which – at the time – I was too young to understand. The above passionate discourse reminds us that minds are unlikely to change on either side of the issue – as seems be true with the feelings surrounding controversial texts (Blue Heron, Twain, Bach, etc).

    Comment by Michael Beattie — January 12, 2011 at 8:49 am

  21. From the reviewer: There was indeed a very good chorus on stage. One of the tricky things about writing these reviews is deciding what to leave out. I considered the chorus, as well as the excellent horn playing in the Stravinsky, the fine reed-work in the Bartok, the lovely balance between timpani and contrabasses, DeYoung’s apt dress change, the brilliant sound of that hall’s organ in the 5th Door, itself one of the most glorious moments in all of opera…well, I’d never get the thing posted. But that’s what I love so much about the comment section, so thank you for covering what I omit!

    Comment by Tom Schnauber — January 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm

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