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Three Takes on Orpheus and Oedipus Complexes


Jean Marais as Narcissus and Orpheus

The Orchestra and Chorus of Emmanuel Music under the direction of Ryan Turner will present “Metamorphoses: Orpheus in Oedipus” featuring Matthew Aucoin’s The Orphic Moment, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5 and Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Harvard Glee Club at Sanders Theater on Friday February 23rd.

On the 1ooth anniversary of the American premiere of Stravinsky’s Rex, the Harvard Glee Club will reprise its role along with 12 male members of Emmanuel Music’s chorus. WBUR’s Christopher Lydon will narrate.

Aucoin’s The Orphic Moment takes a freeze-frame look at the moment before Orpheus turns to look at Eurydice. In Harbison’s Symphony No. 5, the Orpheus myth is reflected in vivid poetry of Milosz, Glück and Rilke, the eponymous hero’s lute represented by an electric guitar. With a libretto by Cocteau based on Sophocles, Stravinsky’s monumental and chilling opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex is a throbbing musical engine of fate.

According to Turner:

In The Testament of Orpheus (1960), the last film of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus trilogy, Cocteau portrays an 18th-century poet who travels through time on a quest for divine wisdom. The Poet (Cocteau) muses to himself, “Of course works of art create themselves, and dream of killing both father and mother. Of course, they exist before the artist discovers them. But it’s always “Orpheus,” always “Oedipus.”

Ironically, Cocteau wants to escape both Orpheus, the poet to whom he continually returns, and Oedipus, the figure toward which all narratives and dreams eventually descend. Yet Cocteau, playing Orpheus, runs into the blind Oedipus being led away from Thebes by Antigone. In this scene both men are blind — Cocteau wears artificial eyes — and they do not see each other. We overhear Cocteau say. “The Sphinx, Oedipus… It is possible that one day we can meet those we have been too anxious to know and not see them.”

While dreams are private, myths are public. By using the mechanics of dreams and poetry to narrate myths, composer, poet and listener are free to recapture an experience that is both personal and collective — to explore the complex relationships between the artist and creation, reality and imagination.

The theme of loss, punctuated by the retelling and reimagining of classical myths, permeates the works on this evening’s program. In the Orphic Moment, Aucoin ponders the second loss of Eurydice as an intentional prioritizing of art over humanity. John Harbison’s own translation of Rilke “Be in front of every Farewell as if it was already past…and call it complete,” elegantly considers the nuances of acceptance in the finale to his Symphony No. 5. Finally, Stravinsky and Cocteau in Oedipus Rex (narration by Jean Cocteau, translated to English by e.e. cummings), assert that crisis is collective — it is not just an individual who suffers, but an entire society that is poisoned. Peter Sellars posits, “The cure, like the disease, is public, collective: not private therapy, but a purgative, cathartic ritual that has a liberating force to transform an entire community.”

[Ed. Note: Bostonians over a certain age can hardly forget Peter Sellars’s ill-fated Oedipus Rex with the BSO, Vanessa Redgrave and Yasir Arafat. See NY Times article HERE]

Cocteau admitted that he had “always preferred mythology to history because history is made up of truths which eventually turn into lies. Mythology is made up of lies that eventually become truths.” In myth, the gods punish the proud, who despise the truth embodied by fate, yet punishment brings wisdom. In art, the poet’s conscience is punished inwardly, and outwardly by receiving critique, in order to bring wisdom to all. In either case, the loss is transcendental. Both Orpheus and Oedipus inhabit a world of myth and dreams, but perhaps one less fatalistic than traditionally understood.

See related review HERE.

Cocteau, the poet and surrealist caricatures Jean Marais.

February 23, 8 p.m. │ Sanders Theater, Cambridge
For tickets and more information, visit

 Aucoin:   The Orphic Moment
         Deborah Rentz-Moore, mezzo-soprano
         Heather Braun, violin

 Harbison:  Symphony No. 5
         Krista River; mezzo-soprano
         David Tinervia, baritone

Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex
Oedipus, Jon Jurgens, tenor

          Jocasta, Michelle Trainor, soprano
          Creon, David Kravitz, baritone
          Tiresias, David Cushing, bass
          Messenger, David Kravitz, baritone
          Shepard, Matthew Anderson, tenor
          Narrator, Christopher Lydon

Click HERE for the extensive program notes.

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