Historically informed performance is usually misunderstood, which is all the more reason why JEG's role should be celebrated. His background gives him insights that confound preconceived expectations. His Verdi Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House (review here) brought out the turbulence in the score reached only by a conductor like JEG who knows how Renaissance music reflected turbulence and violence.
True to form, Gardiner approached Stravinsky with striking originality Conceptually, Oedipus Rex is remarkable because it confounds expectations. Stravinsky and Jean Cocteau deliberately chose emotional distance. They cloaked the text in a dead language so the impact is indirect. Like Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex is stylized. . Oedipus Rex isn't opera in the popular sense of the word, but something quite unique.
Significantly, Gardiner began with Stravinsky's Apollon musagète. Like all ballets it evolves through a series of tableaux, but the structure in this case highlights something very different. Just as he shocked traditional ballet with the Rite of Spring, Stravinsky was exploring a new approach to music for dance. Apollon musagète adapts the pared down elegance of neo-classicism to the cool, clean lines of 1920's modernism.
The orchestra is strings only, limiting the palette so the refinement of form is unclouded. This music is so precise that one hardly needs visuals. The solo violin enters like a dancer, swooping and sweeping. The line is languid but elegant , defined with delicate decoration. The concept of physical movement is defined in the music itself. Curving movements, swooping and sweeping, diagonals, lines that break off to return again with fuller force. Trios and solos intertwine. The violins here are dancers, violas, celli and double basses their corps de ballet. JEG had them standing for a very good reason. As the music circulated, it became more and more rarified, shimmering with lightness, defying the concept of gravity. Music, the apotheosis of dance. Gardiner has conducted enough Rameau, Lully and masters of the French baroque to know that concepts of form and clarity are fundamental to style.
In this context, JEG's Oedipus Rex was extremely perceptive, stressing the neo-classical stylization. The emotional distance is reinforced by the use of a Narrator (Fanny Ardant) and Chorus, creating a frame around the solo singing parts. The instrumentation is spartan, used effectively rather than effusively. Observing Stravinsky's economy of gesture is important because it suggest the implacable, impersonal nature of fate. Sentimentality has no place in a drama like this. Instead, Gardiner conducts with tightly controlled tension, keeping the longer line in focus. When climaxes came, they were explosive. Suppressed violence like this works better than overt excess. When the trumpets cried in fanfare, and the chorus sang "Gloria!", we didn't hear militarist triumph, but rather choruses of terrified voices. Just as in Apollon musagète, Stravinsky uses sounds as abstract voices This time, the palette is dark and brutal, shades of granite metal and rock, as impenetrable as the fate from which Oedipe cannot escape.
Stuart Skelton was a superb Oedipe. Being the central protagonist, his part is more complex and emotionally more anguished. The rhythmic pulse in the music is relentless, almost overwhelming, but Skelton rose to the challenge so well that one could - almost - imagine that he might beat what fate had in store. In that, he created the part with sympathy. He made Latin sound like a living language -- demotic and off the streets. It gave the singing a thrilling sense of immediacy, as if the events were actually unfolding in real-time.
Gidon Saks's Creon was impressive. The weight of Saks's voice is such that it inhibits mobility, but this is a part which is meant to be taken with implacable solidity. Jennifer Johnston's Jocaste was deftly paced, and even the small tenor role of Shepherd made an impact. The part lies high, and here it was sung with an attractive fragility which worked well in the context of the drama. Five years ago Valery Gergiev conducted the LSO in an interpretation that was more low down and dirty. But Oedipus Rex isn't about false realism. John Eliot Gardiner and his forces brought out its true intellectual and musical power.