An Emotive ‘Oedipus’ in Stravinsky Festival

Leonidas Kavakos
The New York Times

By Vivian Schweitzer

Stravinsky, who scorned emotions in art and said — among his many, sometimes contradictory pronouncements — that music was “powerless to express anything at all,” described his opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex” as austere. The first audience certainly found it dour after the excitement and exoticism of his ballets. But while Stravinsky aimed for ironic detachment, the work can seem vividly theatrical and even emotive, as it did in the striking interpretation conducted by Valery Gergiev with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday evening, part of the orchestra’s festival The Russian Stravinsky.

Completed in 1927, during Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical period, “Oedipus Rex,” set to a Latin libretto, is an eclectic score with stylistic references to composers including Debussy and Handel. Jeremy Irons was the elegant narrator here. Stravinsky didn’t want to include a speaker (the idea of his librettist, Jean Cocteau), because he assumed that listeners would already be familiar with the story.

After a brief spoken introduction, the work opens with a monumental outburst from the choristers, who plead with Oedipus to save them from the plague. The Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater sang beautifully all evening, with Mr. Gergiev conducting a detailed rendition of the score.

Anthony Dean Griffey wielded his powerful, sonorous tenor to fine effect in a dramatically convincing portrayal of Oedipus. The mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier sang well but wasn’t always theatrically effective as Jocasta. The bass Mikhail Petrenko often failed to project and sounded tentative as Creon.

Stravinsky’s neo-Baroque Violin Concerto, which came before intermission, achieves the emotional objectivity he aimed for in “Oedipus Rex.” An insistent rhythmic pulse permeates the work, which was given a strong performance by the Philharmonic and the violinist Leonidas Kavakos. He played both the dancelike fast passages and more ruminative slow sections expressively. As an encore he offered the Sarabande from Bach’s unaccompanied Partita No. 2, a warmly intimate change of mood after the chilly concerto.

The program opened with Stravinsky’s rarely performed “Zvezdoliki” (“The Star-Faced One”), a 10-minute work for chorus and orchestra that begins with a sequence of four chords scored for tenors and basses.

Stravinsky finished “Zvezdoliki” in 1912 and dedicated it to Debussy, who described the music as “the harmony of the eternal spheres.” Echoes of Debussy can be heard throughout the score, which certainly doesn’t sound like anything else by Stravinsky.