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Chapter Two— Singing Greek Tragedy
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Chapter Two—
Singing Greek Tragedy

From the very beginning of what we now call opera—Corsi's and Peri's lost scores for Rinuccini's Dafne (1594–1598), Peri's Euridice (1600), Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607)—up to the end of the eighteenth century, composers depended considerably for their plots on classical Greek legends, and often on the dramatic versions of those legends written by the three authors of early Greek tragedies whose works had survived.

From then through the nineteenth century—the years when most of the operas we still hear were performed—these ancient Greek sources were almost abandoned. They appeared to be too simple, too austere to carry the freight of a full-out romantic score, and the spectacular productions the age demanded. In the twentieth century, opera composers returned to these earliest dramatic models. Their fusion of simplicity with primal passion, their union of aesthetic purity with human experience at the edge of nightmare seemed once again attuned to the feelings and ideas that musicians wanted to express.

What little was known of Greek tragedy around 1600 led a number of Florentine humanists to experiment with various means of reviving it, or synthesizing something like it. They knew that it was sung, or chanted, or at least clearly declaimed in varying intervals and rhythms, which changed depending on the emotion expressed. The texts make clear that long set "arias" by the principal players (all of whom were men) alternated with antiphonal "duets" and more intensely poetic choral lyrics, which were sung in unison, we now believe, by an all-male chorus of fifteen. Other evidence suggests dancelike movements and instrumental accompaniment.

These and other elements of classic drama, translated through the preferred instruments and tonalities of the late sixteenth century, led to the stately, courtly, emotionally expressive earliest "operas," works intended to evoke (but in fact very


different from) the fifth-century B.C. plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. "It is very probable," writes the New Oxford Companion to Music , "that if we could hear a piece of Ancient Greek music accurately performed, we should regard it as bizarre, uncouth, and possibly barbaric."

These early Renaissance humanists, penetrated by their awe for Greek and Roman wisdom, were trying to recapture it whole. In their enlightened naäveté, they created something altogether new. As the seventeenth century progressed, the dawn freshness of this new creation became codified and regularized, and discovery gradually turned into a style. The novelty of Monteverdi's Orphic song grew into lavish, academic court entertainments: Lully's Alceste of 1674 is almost as extravagant as Versailles. But these entertainments were still frequently based on the prestigious texts of the Greek and Latin playwrights. The unique esteem in which literae humaniores (as Oxford University still calls Greek and Latin literature) were held throughout the eighteenth century helps to explain why artists like Corneille and Racine, Dryden and Pope, Lully and Gluck continued to turn to these texts for their sources and models. But the very elements in classical tragedy that had appealed to the aristocratic camerata of Florence rendered it unserviceable to the composers of a more popular and more spectacular form of opera, opera more dependent than theirs on elaborate vocal, orchestral, and scenic displays.

The thirty-two surviving Greek tragedies are more varied than some commentators pretend. But they did all make use of a simple, single-facade set (usually representing one place), and they played out a single action, usually the action of one day, more or less continuously. They are short—1,000 to 1,500 lines—and offer no intermission breaks. Athenian audiences could watch three of these plays, plus a comic afterpiece, in a single day. Dramatic, even horrible events occurred in them, but usually offstage. Such events were communicated to the audience after they had occurred, either by long-winded messengers or by tableaux morts rolled out on wheeled platforms. There were never more than three actors on stage or, for that matter, in a production. When a play called for more than three characters, the male "leads" simply changed masks and vocal tones. The fifteen chorus members, in three rows of five, chanted and danced on a level below that of the actors. Costumes were simple and traditional, all actors wore masks, and props were minimal. The entire effort was tightly focused, lucid, and direct, but in no way "realistic." Ritualized action and elevated language were designed to touch deep levels of the moral imagination, not to thrill the senses by lifelike or virtuoso effects.

Once the producers and the audiences of opera came to expect lavish period costumes and gorgeous stage settings, the fixed, flat stage houses and unity-of-action plots of the Greeks were of little more use. Mighty choruses of peasants and soldiers, onstage wars, duels, abductions, and apparitions; bel canto vocal show-


pieces full of trills and repeats; inset ballets; three- to five-act structures: it was impossible to draw such things out of or graft them onto classical roots.

Then the wheel turned again. The respectability of creating exotic Italo-French spectacles dwindled sometime before Turandot , and modern composers turned back to the Greeks. They might find what they needed in the stripped, other-worldly rituals of Aeschylus; in the balanced classical humanism of Sophocles; or in the neurotic passions and vernacular intensity of Euripides. At the same time, French and American playwrights (Cocteau, Anouilh, Giraudoux, Gide, Sartre, Jeffers, O'Neill), filmmakers (Cocteau again, Cacoyannis, Pasolini), and important stage directors in Europe and in America were rediscovering the Greek tragedians, whose work they frequently turned to novel political or psychological ends.

Most of the hundreds of classically derived operas have been dropped from the active repertory. I found reports of twenty-five operas based on the Greek tragedies performed on the world's opera stages (some on very small stages) between 1974 and 1984. Of these, four—Gluck's Alceste , after Euripides (1767), Cherubini's Médée , after Euripides (1797), Strauss's Elektra , after Sophocles (1909), and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex , after Sophocles (1927)—lead the list. Looking at the ways these four composers and their librettists made use of their classical sources may teach us something of the flexibility and endurance of one of the oldest-known sources of human stories.

Although it's all about dying, Euripides's version of Alcestis is denied the title of tragedy by some commentators, because it ends happily and includes at least one semicomic scene.

Euripides's play doesn't have much of a "plot," in Aristotle's sense, or in ours. Instead, a "situation"—one established, in typical Greek-tragedy fashion, by events that occurred before the play begins—is described, demonstrated, examined, argued over, sung about, and danced about from various sequential perspectives, and then finally concluded—only to be overturned by a benevolent deity in the final scene.

The situation is the noble, magnanimous, and exemplary dying of Alcestis, queen of Thessaly, on behalf of and out of love for her husband Admetus. When the day appointed for his death had come, Admetus had managed to cheat the Fates and escape—but only on the condition that he come up with a substitute victim. No one else volunteering (including, to his disgust, his aged parents), his wife has offered herself in his stead. Her offer is accepted, and the day of the play is the day of her death.

Before the dying queen and grieving king even come on stage, we learn all of this from Apollo and Death, who argue out (and thereby reveal) the conclusion of the


story; from a chorus of citizens, who chant about "the noblest woman alive"; and from Alcestis's servant maid, who reports in great detail the queen's sublime and pathetic preparations for her self-sacrifice. Alcestis is borne in on a litter, accompanied by her heartbroken spouse, for a magnificent death scene, which follows all of the ritual and rhythmic patterns expected of Attic tragedy. They exchange sad two-line remarks, then short six-line speeches. She has a long farewell "aria," with a choral response. He has a long answering aria, with a choral response. Then comes a sequence of line-for-line "repartee," or stichomythia, ending with broken lines, and her death. Their son recites two ten-line stanzas of grief. The body is carried inside. The chorus admonishes Admetus to be brave; he orders a year of public mourning. The chorus chants a moving four-stanza hymn to the dead.

This takes us only about halfway through the play, but it is all of Euripides's story that the operatic version uses, except for a subsequent scene of lamentation by Admetus and the "surprise" happy ending. Euripides varies and enlivens the time between Alcestis's death and the conclusion with a brilliantly bitter exchange between the king and his old father that is charged with violent hostility and rhetorical wit; and with the unexpected arrival of Heracles, en route to his fifth impossible labor. He is welcomed as a guest of the palace by a king too proud of his reputation as a host to turn him away. Heracles then proceeds to get drunk and disorderly in the house of sorrow. When he learns from an angry servant of the mourning he has interrupted, he goes to Alcestis's tomb and wrestles with Death for her body. (This we never see; we only hear of it.) Heracles then returns the body (alive) to an astonished and grateful husband.

Christoph Willibald, Ritter von Gluck (the title Ritter —"Count," more or less—was a papal honor, not a sign of noble birth), and his Italian librettist Raniero de' Calzabigi were obviously attracted to the potential for sad sweetness and lamentation in this story, which Gluck's pure, stately, finespun music expresses so eloquently. They cut out the father-son quarrel, and Heracles's crude intrusion, which would have clashed with their preferred texture of courtly emotions, silver-voiced airs, noble recitatives, and ritual, dancelike rhythms. To enlarge an undivided 1,100-line play into a satisfying 1767 Viennese court entertainment, they expanded backward in time, beginning their version not with Alcestis's death day, but with her husband's before hers. (Lully's seventeenth-century version takes the beginning back further still, to the battle in which her husband was wounded.) This allows for two separate sequences in which pitiful choruses sing in slow, Bach-like harmonies, repeating their woeful lines over and over. This also gives us the high drama of Alcestis's act of self-sacrifice on stage, proposed in her famous invocation of the spirits of hell: "Ombre, larve" in Italian, "Divinités du Styx" in the 1776 French. Gluck adds another scene in which Alcestis, alone with the infernal deities in a sacred wood, seals her vow with another gorgeous concert-piece aria, "Non vi turbate, no, pietosi dei," sad oboe breathing above, bass strings


dragging like a heavy robe, treble strings singing with her, then echoing her silver-sweet coloratura repeats.

Gluck's second act opens with a joyful, major-key chorus celebrating Admetus's recovery, until his now-failing wife appears and counters his emotion-signaling music with hers. For the rest of the opera, then, we return to the single-minded sweet sadness of the opening scenes, until Apollo descends on a cloud—a genuine deus ex machina—and gives Admetus back his wife, because the gods have decided that "two such tender lovers deserve a better fate." "Oh marvel! Oh bliss!" sings the chorus. "Let us celebrate! Reign over us!" They then dance, court fashion, around their reunited and enthroned monarchs, both alive and well.

Euripides's original does have its Gluck-like speeches, its choruses full of noble generosity and all-suffusing grief. Alcestis's fears for her children's future and her tears on her marriage bed are parts of the opera as well as of the play. Responding to the emotional and theatrical needs of eighteenth-century Vienna and Paris, Gluck and Calzabigi converted Euripides's harrowing vision of death and the dark hereafter into something tender, sweet, and sad. While enlarging the visible time and space of the original, they filtered out all jarring rivalries and hostilities, all comedy and crudity. Each artist wrote according to his own complex set of conventions, yet each managed to communicate a keenly felt set (although a different set) of human emotions. What the Greek playwright and the German composer have in common are a taste for artistic austerity, a sharp sense of emotional focus, and the Classical (or Neoclassical) commitment to an all-embracing formal order. If Gluck affects us more, it may only be because we can no longer hear Euripides's music.

Euripides's Medea , first performed seven years after his Alcestis (431 B.C. ), is a more shocking, more astonishing, more emotionally devastating play, with a protagonist far stronger and more awesome than Alcestis. But it, too, is dramaturgically simple. It is an essentially plotless, single-minded work in which the one action—Medea's revenge-inspired murder of her enemies—is predicted, then announced, then debated, then carried out. The events that have occasioned her remorseless and bloody hatred have already occurred, and are quickly explained. Nothing delays her but (a) the need for a day's stay of her sentence of banishment to give her time to act; (b) the assurance of a safe place of refuge after she acts; and (c) the decision whether to murder her two children in order to spite their unfaithful father and save them from a miserable future. She obtains (a) from King Creon, one of her target-victims, by some ingenious role-playing and wheedling (the scene was taken over directly by Cherubini); (b) from her old friend King Aegeus of Athens, who happens by opportunely; and she resolves (c)—the decision to kill her children—by sheer power of independent womanly will, over the piteous arguments of her nurse and the chorus of her female supporters.

In one respect, Medea appears to offer a more promising operatic text than


Alcestis . The heroine's driving passion is more than noble, selfless, conjugal love. It is love thwarted: love, lust, and dedication (absolute, manic, lifelong), all betrayed. And the betrayed love, lust, and dedication are those of a barbarian princess who has already betrayed her own father and her homeland, murdered and chopped to pieces her own brother, and tricked other women into murdering and chopping to pieces their father. All of this Medea has done out of her passion for a man who is now casting her aside for a younger woman.

The story appealed to several opera composers of the new Italian-French, dramatic spectacle-and-aria school. One of the earliest among them was Luigi Cherubini, a Florentine who (like Lully) settled and made good in Paris. After a long lapse, his Medea (as its Italian version is spelled) returned to the world repertory in 1953, when Maria Callas sang the title role first in Florence, then in Milan, and, in later years, in Venice, Rome, Dallas, London, and the theatre of Epidaurus in Greece. Callas, a proud and passionate Greek-American who loved playing classic tragedy queens, also performed in Gluck's Alceste and his Iphigénie en Tauride , and in Pier-Paolo Pasolini's very free film adaptation of Medea .

The album notes to her recording of Cherubini's Medea state that "the libretto by François-Benoit Hoffmann closely follows Euripides," which is nonsense. A mid-eighteenth-century Neoclassical composer like Gluck may have expanded and sweetened Greek tragedies to suit his needs. But Cherubini, more an early Romantic than a late Classicist, together with his librettist, chopped, stuffed, sentimentalized, and theatricalized until very little is left that one can recognize from Euripides's original except the occasional fury of the protagonist and the barest events of her story. The result—especially as rewritten in 1854, when the spoken dialogue was transformed into recitative—is far more "Italian opera" than Greek tragedy. Tender sentiments (Jason's new love for Glauce, Medea's melting mother love for her treasured babes) count for at least as much musically as Euripidean lust, revenge, and hatred.

The chorus has grown far beyond Euripides's fifteen "women of Corinth" chanting and moving in sympathetic unison with their idol, far beyond Gluck's semiecclesiastical choir offering us refreshing interludes of grief, fear, or joy. It has become one of those mammoth, noisy, Italian opera mobs—in this case a mob of Corinthians all on the side of Jason, Creon, and Glauce (who is called Dirce in the 1854 Italian version), a mob that wants to tear the alien princess limb from limb. This chorus is primarily useful for Cherubim's grand-opera spectacle scenes, like the first act Procession of the Golden Fleece, or the lavish rituals in the Temple of Hera. The chorus last appears in a superspectacular finale, in which a screaming mob rushes toward the temple to murder the murderer, only to have Medea appear in the doorway, surrounded by three Furies, and brandishing over her head the knife with which she has just killed her children. "O visione d'horror!" they shout. "O terror!"


"Barbara! " spits Jason. "Where are my sons?"

"Their blood has avenged me!" replies the barbarous one.

"What had they done to you, crudela? "

"They were yours!"

"Oh ye gods. . . ."

Medea announces her departure for hell, having set fire to the temple, which bursts immediately into flame. The chorus shrieks as it flees, fortissimo: curtain.

Euripides's finale also may seem a little theatrically strained. His Medea appears suddenly on the roof of the single-set temple, with the corpses of her sons, about to escape from Athens in a chariot drawn by dragons that was given her by her grandfather the god. She and Jason parry a few final insults, the chorus throws up its hands at the unreadable will of the gods. But this still falls far short of the Paris Opera extravaganza of a temple suddenly bursting into flames, to all-out orchestral thunders.

Like Gluck and Calzabigi, Cherubini and Hoffmann had to "fill in backward," as it were, inventing new characters and episodes to expand Euripides's brief and brutal text into three acts. Their opera begins with Jason's arrival in Corinth, and his plans for a wedding with Glauce, who is never more than an unnamed presence in Euripides. In the opera, Creon, Jason, and Glauce sing and plot and fret among themselves, supported by priests, attendants, and their partisan chorus. In the play, Medea commands center stage throughout. The others exist only as reflections of her needs or as targets of her passion. Euripides's Jason makes his case against Medea so deviously and skillfully that we end up half believing him, which makes the play crackle with emotional potential. Cherubini's Jason is just a dumb romantic clod, totally alienated from and terrified of Medea, and in love with his new lyric soprano. Surprisingly, the most passionate single moment in Euripides—the messenger's 94-line description of Creon's and Glauce's ghastly deaths—has no counterpart in Cherubini. Jason and the chorus are whipped into such a musical frenzy on hearing of their deaths that no one could possibly pause for such a long descriptive aria.

Gluck's arias can still send chills up the spine, with their precise, almost organically emotional pulsing and flow. Cherubini's, despite a great deal of high-witchy coloratura, come across primarily as vocal display pieces, structured A-B-A-applause. Even the most vocally impressive of his arias, duets, and choruses sometimes make little dramatic sense—a departure from Monteverdi and Gluck that Italian/French opera was to accept for decades to come. At the conclusion of their first exchange (a searing scene in Euripides), Jason and Medea join in an emotionally meaningless duet about "the fatal golden fleece." Medea still has, in the opera, her great moments; passionate declarations that make ferocious demands on the voice. But they are inevitably followed by soft airs of maternal tendresse, as if no respectable eighteenth-century audience could tolerate displays


of barbaric female bitchery unless they were instantly balanced by evidence of sentimental and domestic affections.

The stories are fundamentally the same, and something of Medea's primal intensity comes through. But comparing heart of work with heart of work, there is virtually nothing here of Euripides, or of the moral and artistic ideals of Greek tragedy generally. There is none of the "rage for order" that ties Gluck to his original; Cherubini's orchestra changes emotional gears with the awkward abruptness of a stick-shift learner-driver. That a few great dramatic-coloratura sopranos have found in this opera material worthy of their talents only demonstrates the great distance that separates Classical tragedy from good Romantic-declamatory early grand opera.[1]

By the time Hofmannsthal and Strauss took on Sophocles's Electra , they were free of the binding conventions under which both Gluck and Cherubini labored, free to ignore the presumptions of both Neoclassicism and grand opera, free to make whatever use they wished and were able to of what David Grene calls Sophocles's "best constructed and most unpleasant play." "The tightness and cogency of the plot," writes Grene (who has translated Sophocles), "go together with the absence of nobility and magnitude in the chief character in a way which never occurred again in the extant plays."

In some ways, it may appear as if, freed of conventional demands, these twentieth-century artists were able to come closer to the spirit and style of the Greeks.


The great instrumental concertati , the introduction of Dirce and her attendants, the march and chorus of the Argonauts, the prayer scene of Act I, the trio and above all the wedding scene of Act II might all, taken by themselves, seem little more than the standard requisites of French opera tradition. But the dark shadow that the terror evoked by Medea throws over them creates a gepresste Stimmung , a "feeling of anguish" that Richard Hohenemser (Cherubini's first German biographer) thought he could hear in the music itself—but which, to tell the truth, is not really there.


Like Sophocles, they could present a single unbroken action set in a single place; no intermissions, no set changes, no subplots, no dramatized past action: total unity of time, place, and action. The opera, like the play, represents an awful, inexorable, arrow-straight progress from will to deed, the horrifying climax of Electra's many years of wretchedness and waiting.

She is here, as in Sophocles, unquestionably the protagonist. Every scene in the opera, like every scene in the play, is focused on or manipulated by her. In proper Greek fashion, the key episodes take the form of carefully crafted confrontations: Electra and her weakfish sister, Electra and her hated mother, Electra and her long-lost brother. The chorus, although individuated into separate characters (an effect the Greeks also achieved at times), is reduced once again to a small, coherent band of worried observers, the serving maids at Aegisthus's palace.

It cannot be denied that Hugo von Hofmannsthal (who wrote his German adaptation of the play first) and Richard Strauss (who then collaborated with him to transform it into an opera) follow closely Sophocles's scheme and action. What they did in addition is to "open it up," as other twentieth-century artists have done with other Greek tragedies, by trying to provide the characters with psychological motivations far in excess of anything Sophocles thought necessary. This enabled them to transform a supreme morality play into a hyper-Freudian horror story, communicated on heated currents of imagery, diction, and (especially) music far more willfully voluptuous and discordant than anything a fifth-century B.C. Greek artist, however inspired or demented, would have dreamed possible or useful.

Every element of Sophocles's tragedy that has led commentators to find it "unpleasant" or "ignoble" has been tightened by Hofmannsthal and Strauss to a pitch of intensity that renders their version far more ugly and shrill. Almost every element of formal control or ritual order that gives a bearable shape, a possibly salutary meaning to the Greek original has been dropped. What has been added in the way of language, characterization, and music only stresses the new sense of chaos and uncontrol.

The Electra of legend—like Sophocles's Antigone or Shakespeare's Hamlet—begins as a child burdened and obsessed by a sacred duty. She feels she must avenge her father's murder by punishing her guilty mother and her mother's sinful consort. Although she hopes to obtain the aid and support of her sister and her brother in the act, she feels strong-willed enough to kill the two elders herself if she must. "Necessary" as the deed may ritually be, all of the reasonable people around her (notably, in Sophocles, her sister and the chorus) beg her to calm down, to cast off her excess of grief, and to accept the existing order. Alas, she replies, she cannot. She is just lucid enough to know that she's obsessed. She takes her filial obligations with supreme seriousness, and regards Clytemnestra's and Aegisthus's sins as too mortal to be forgiven. As she answers the "reasonable" chorus:


In such a state, my friends, one cannot
be moderate and restrained nor pious either.
Evil is all around me, evil
is what I am compelled to practice.

Strauss's Elektra takes this obsession several steps further, to a point that may well seem pathological. She lives with the dogs, digs in the ground with her fingers for an axe, lewdly lusts for her young sister's flesh, and torments her mother near to madness with detailed and grisly images of the death that awaits her. Even Elektra's brother, Orest, when he finally recognizes her beneath her rags, sunken cheeks, and filthy hair, sees that she is hopelessly far gone. In Strauss, then, the drama begins not with a passionate agent of moral vengeance, but with a madwoman.

In Sophocles, the surrounding characters are varied and personalized only insofar as the legend requires. Sophocles never individuates his characters very deeply, but he usually allows to each a degree of self-justification sufficient to keep the moral combat tense and alive. Chrysothemis is less vengeful. and dedicated than her sister but, in compensation, is more sweet, more sane, more sensible. In their line-for-line exchanges in the play, it is impossible to say for certain which sister makes the stronger case. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus did kill Agamemnon, but they can offer good reasons for their deed. In her great showdown scene with Electra, Clytemnestra comes off as neither a villain nor a fool. Both Orestes and Aegisthus seem strong and reasonably noble, trapped by their roles in the legend.

Each of these in the opera is twisted into something neurotic or morally weak or both. Orest seems at first frightened of his mad sister (as who would not be?) and unwilling to act; later, he is a melting Tristan to her rapturous Isolde. Aegisth is explicitly called a "woman" and shown as a blustering fool. Chrysothemis is obsessed by her barrenness and desperately envies "normal," childbearing women. Klytemnestra is transformed into a manic hag, bloated, diseased, and insanely superstitious. She hangs her sick body with magic stones, and slaughters fields full of beasts in the vain hope of dispelling the incubus that rides her in sleep.

The poetry of Sophocles is rich, varied, worldly, and expressive: dawning bird song, blazing stars, and well-bred horses fill and broaden the lines. Even Electra cries and laments in terms of Niobe and robbed nightingales, as well as axes and blood and beds. The chorus offers her what is meant to be genuine and heartfelt consolation:

Take heart, take heart, my child.
Still great above is Zeus,
who oversees all things in sovereign power.
Confide to him your overbitter wrath.


STRAUSSElektra , Danila Mastilovic (left) and Martha Mödl, Berlin Staatsoper, 1964.
Photograph by Marion Schöne.

The greatest "set piece" in the play is a pretend-messenger's fictional account of Orestes's death in a chariot race, as brilliant and compelling as the comparable accounts in Homer or Racine.

Hofmannsthal's verbal texture, by contrast, could not be more relentlessly repulsive—particularly the language of his two madwomen. We are fed carrion, blowflies, corpses, breeding vultures, hanged bodies, dog's slop—all in the early lines of the first scene. Klytemnestra's similes are as grotesque as she is: "I will open up my soul, as sick people do when, sitting by the pool in the evening, they expose their ulcers and their suppurating wounds to the cool evening air." Elektra's lesbian love song to her sister is a piece of overripe, commencement de siècle Viennese fruit. Characters reach beyond language to laugh hysterically, whimper like wounded animals, shriek in agony, far beyond the limits of Attic decorum. Elektra visualizes her father's death, then her mother's and her other enemies', in scenes and lines overflowing with blood, Blood, Blut , a hundred throats gushing with it, pouring it out like pitchers, a surging wave of blood, a swollen stream of blood; kill the horses, slaughter the hounds, purple fumes will rise in the air, and I will dance


around the pile of bodies! Meanwhile the music sweeps and surges and screams around her, every bit as hysterical as she is.

For all of the bare-bones similarities between their two Electras , therefore, it is obvious that the imagination and moral vision of Hofmannsthal and Strauss are worlds removed from those of Sophocles. Virtually from start to finish, the unfettered music proves this more clearly than any verbal demonstration could do. The moral and physical horrors of Sophocles's "unpleasant" play are controlled and contained by a taut, shapely structure of strophe and antistrophe, answering lines and choral intervals, precise and complex rhythms small and large. The far more explicit horrors of the German opera are blasted and blatted, shrieked and squealed by voices and instruments meant (despite their underlying structures) to seem mad themselves, on the edge of splitting and bursting. Voluptuous waves of strings keep rolling up to manic bursts and fortissimo crescendos; then melting into sour-honey streams, punctuated by axe blows and whiplashes and clubfooted waltzes as called for by the text. Impelled by the pressures and insights of his own time, Hofmannsthal, like Freud, leapt willingly into the realm of the irrational. His nightmarish text, seconded by Strauss's nightmarish music, twisted Sophocles's mad heroine and her world into an unearthly (and riveting) case study in psychopathia sexualis .[2]

With Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex , we almost come home. Stravinsky, like Strauss, felt free of earlier operatic conventions. He was in fact far freer than Strauss (whose operas he despised), since Strauss was still very much a child of Wagner, and of post-Hapsburg Vienna. Igor Stravinsky was an international exile and wanderer, the supreme eclectic of Modern music, a man of broad and extraordinary culture

If were not for this strain of coarseness and thoughtlessness in him, he would never have taken up so crude a perversion of the old Greek story as that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. . . . To make a play a study of human madness, and then to lay such excessive stress upon the merely physical concomitants of madness, is to ask us to tune our notions of dramatic terror and horror down to too low a pitch. Strauss, of course, revels in this physical, and therefore more superficial, side of the madness . . .

Much of the music is as abominably ugly as it is noisy. . . . The talk about complexity is wide of the mark. The real term for it is incoherence, discontinuity of thinking


who could put his hand to almost any text or idea and find a way to turn it into "pure" and yet highly expressive music—music that in the end often seems almost unlocatable in time or place. Sublimely self-confident, he worried as little as have most Modernist masters about appealing to the popular majority; making an exception for his exciting early ballet music, the popular majority has returned the favor. Oedipus Rex , which he calls an "opera-oratorio," is defiantly static, antitheatrical, and unspectacular, by opera house standards; which may be one reason few operagoers get a chance to see and hear it.

This is a pity, because in it Stravinsky forces us back very close to what I believe was the bone-and-blood appeal (and the terror) involved in the original, fifth-century B.C. experience of a major Greek tragedy. In Oedipus Rex , wrote Virgil Thomson, Stravinsky was able to "produce an oratorio about a Greek tragedy that is closer to the original aims of opera than anything else written. . . . The whole does exactly what the inventors of opera in Florence (around the year 1600) had hoped opera would do. It revives a Greek tragedy convincingly."

Stravinsky does everything he can to distance and ritualize the action, or non-action. He asks the singers to wear masks, and to stand rigidly on little individual podiums ("I abhor verismo"). The chorus is to sit cowled and faceless in a semicircle behind them, reading from scrolls. He had Jean Cocteau write (and rewrite) a much-shortened French version of Sophocles's play, which he then shortened some more, and had translated back—into classical Latin! In exile from Russia, he still felt the other Western languages were too alien for him to use. Ciceronian Latin seemed pure and universal, and gave him a wonderfully clear structure of sounds and syllables to set to music. Stravinsky's antirealistic "distancing" devices are not those of fifth-century B.C. Athens. But his end result may come closer to its intent (as Virgil Thomson claimed) than that of any of the other composers I have discussed. He was, at the time he wrote Oedipus Rex , committed to an orthodox Christian faith and a Classical aesthetic, and he chose the play, the form, and the language in the hope of making a universal and archetypal musical statement.

There is no need to discuss what Stravinsky and Cocteau added, because they added nothing. The entire work (performed unbroken) takes about fifty minutes, and gains in urgency and impact from its concentration. Stravinsky was persuaded to add a vernacular "narrator," who breaks in between episodes to sum up the plot ahead in the audience's own language. The role—originally played by Cocteau himself—has been attempted by a number of distinguished stage actors, from Ralph Richardson and Michael Hordern to Michel Piccoli and Maria Casarès. Stravinsky later professed to hate the device, and I prefer the work without it. No matter how stately and sonorous the speaker, these little "subtitles" have the momentum-killing effect of television commercials interrupting a great late-night movie.


The episodes occur in the same order as they do in the play: the chorus's plea and Oedipus's promise concerning the plague; Creon's report on the oracle and Oedipus's fatal vow; Tiresias's rejected revelation of the truth: Jocasta's unintended "leak" concerning the murder at the crossroads (a climactic moment in Stravinsky's opera); the messenger's and the shepherd's subsequent revelations (delivered simultaneously in the opera); the chorus's report of Jocasta's and Oedipus's respective fates, and its farewell to the blinded king. Each contains far fewer words than the dramatic original; details, arguments, explanations, and imagery have been cut, so that the music can work its own emotional effects. In a few cases, the cuts are so extreme that the speakers make little sense—the Messenger, for no apparent reason, adds to his message of Polybus's death, "He was not Oedipus's father." What the chorus declaims may be, in this shorthand form, more "obvious" than in the original, especially when they repeat it over and over. Most of the texts, however reduced, do seem to convey the essence of the play, and they seem, when sung, no less awesome and terrible.

Whether Stravinsky's opera-oratorio is an adequate "substitute" for Sophocles's play is for the listener to decide. However eclectic, Stravinsky still works in a recognizable and highly individual musical idiom, which may seem to some admirers of Greek tragedy too cleverly "modern" and formulaic, or too mock-barbaric, or simply too loud and insistent to equal, represent, or do justice to the famous original.

I find the modern musical version apt, direct, and powerful. Words that matter most (sciam: "I will know!") are hammered in mounting repetition over Stravinsky's inexorable drumbeats. Key verbs in particular—ulciscere , "avenge" (Laius); reperere , "discover" (the murderer); luere , "purge" (Thebes)—are driven in lake steel nails. The dreaded words of discovery are uttered like the crucial verse in a Holy Week Passion:

Natus sum, quo nefastum est;
Concubi cui nefastum est;
Cecidi quem nefastum est;
Lux facta est.

Accursed was I born;
Accursed was my marriage;
Accursed was my shedding of blood;
Now comes the light.

The last words are declaimed to a descending, crazed clarinet fanfare. There is something ecclesiastical, like a baroque cathedral service with organ, chorus, and soloists, about the wavelike rise to crucial lines over an irresistible, almost primitive ostinato of chorus and percussion:


Rex rex, rex, peremptor regis est!

A king, a king, a king is the murderer of the king!

To rivet in our minds the importance of a line or phrase, Stravinsky takes it and plays with it; has it chanted, rising and falling, to "scary" harmonies and strange, spidery, noodling instrumental overlays; then drops to a white, eloquently speaking silence. Oedipus, Jocasta, Tiresias, and Creon all speak-sing in free semirecitative (different for each character) that is at once "operatically" compelling and dramatically precise.

When Jocasta lets slip the "crossroads" clue—Laius was killed at a crossroads; "Laius in trivio mortuuos"—the music slows down creepily, and the chorus picks up "trivium, trivium," "crossroads, crossroads," like the beat of Oedipus's own conscience. It then plays it against Jocasta's insistent line, "Oracles always lie," over and over and over. The pace slows down, grows more ominous, the drums become more threatening. Oedipus, urgent and frightened, admits in short gasps that he did once kill an old man at a crossroads. Jocasta, now wild and shrill, much too fast, begs him to come home at once. Their duet, over the now near-maddening death-drums, the calling horns and lower brass, is a capital instance of Stravinsky's ability to achieve with his musical means much of the moral anxiety and mortal terror of Sophocles's 2,400-year-old verbal structure.



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