Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex is so dramatic it hardly needs staging. Stravinsky wanted the text in Latin, deliberately distancing the text from listeners, to further strengthen the idea of ancient, impenetrable mystery. So a story of ancient Greece, written first in French by Jean Cocteau and back-translated into Latin. Setting this performance in Japanese pre-history extends the idea that this saga is universal.
While most Japanese are familiar with western history, western audiences have little idea at all about other cultures. The Jomon period in Japan lasted from around 14000 BCE til around the time of the Romans in Europe. Relatively little is known about the period, even though it lasted so long, so this DVD, from the Saito Kinen Festival in 1992, is worth watching for this very reason alone.
The cast is superb - Jessye Norman, Philip Langridge, Bryn Terfel, and Seiji Osawa conducts the Saito Kinen Orchestra, who are much underrated. They deserved being in that arbitrary Gramophone magazine list of "best orchestras".
The principals perform inside huge costumes, with enormous false arms and hands, operated inside the voluminous garments. Above their heads tower symbolic heads, with eyeless sockets. It sounds odd, but works well in practice since the principals are larger than life and move with ponderous dignity.
Imagine Jessye Norman at her imperious peak in gleaming white, massive hands crossed against her chest, metal spikes sticking out several feet from her headress. When this Jocasta intones "Do not trust oracles!" she means it. She's overwhelmingly powerful, her voice magnificent. Philip Langridge sings a very good Oedipus, from inside another contraption of a costume. The dancers seem to have stepped right out of an archaeological site. They move with formal. angular gestures. Again, the faces are opaque, hidden by masks that reveal nothing. The effect is a kind of primitive, ritual power. This film, by Julie Taymor, makes Oedipus Rex feel like The Rite of Spring.
The choruses move like a frieze of pottery figures, but each singer is defined individually. The set (by George Tsypin) itself uses many ideas from Jomon art - perpendiculars and flat planes "knitted" with rope and cord. Most striking of all, though, is the narrator, Kayoko Shiraishi. She's dressed in a simple grey kimono but her delivery is so powerful that she almost eclipses Norman's Jocasta. Even though she's speaking Japanese, there's no mistaking the savage ferocity of what she's saying. Japanese audiences will get this Oedipus Rex readily enough. Western audiences should try. Even if they don't, that's OK as the staging is abstract enough to appreciate on its oiwn terms. Interesting detail - this was co produced by Peter Gelb, now at the Met.