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Friday, April 30, 2010

Concert Review: Oedipus Rex at the Philharmonic

Valery Gergiev, looking priestly. Photo by Chris Lee.
Thursday night's installment of the New York Philharmonic's three-week festival The Russian Stravinsky featured a powerful performance of Oedipus Rex, the two-act "opera-oratorio" based on Sophocles' tragedy. With its unique structure short length and lack of dramatic action, Oedipus Rex is ideally suited to the concert stage. Mr. Gergiev used his characteristic, muscular approach to conducting this score. Although the balance of brass and chorus threatened at times to drown out the soloists, this was exciting music-making.

Anthony Dean Griffey and Waltraud Meier gave strong performances as Oedipus and Jocasta, the married King and Queen of Thebes who discover that they are actually mother and son. Mr. Griffey is an instinctive actor, even in the concert setting. He has a fine, ringing tenor that was well-suited to the note of false nobility that Stravinsky gives Oedipus before his downfall. Mr. Griffey's best moment though, was silent. When denying his guilt in Act I, he shifted, darted his eyes and looked Nixon-like in his guilt. Ms. Meier, the Wagnerian mezzo familiar from countless performances of Parsifal brought her steely, dramatic instrument to the short role of Jocasta. The rapid-fire duet between these two singers was one of the pleasures of the evening.

Oedipus Rex alternates Latin text with a Narration that moves the drama forward. In this case, Academy Award-winning actor Jeremy Irons used his fine, Shakespearean voice to lend weight to the proceedings. He was aided by the all-male Mariinsky chorus and fine vocal soloists. Russian bass Ilya Bannik took the roles of Creon and the Messenger. His delivery of the news of Jocasta's death and Oedipus' self-blinding, backed by heavy chords in the brass and the response of the chorus, made a powerful close to the opera.

The concert opened with the rarely performed Le Roi d'Etoile, a Stravinsky work for chorus and orchestra that echoes the composer's admiration for the works of Claude Debussy. It was followed by the Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos as an exciting soloist. Mr.Kavakos showed great command of phrasing and Stravinsky's tricky rhythms, soaring through the four movements including the difficult final Capriccio. Met with rapturous applause, he returned and dazzled the audience with a violin transcription of the Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Spanish guitar virtuoso Francisco Tárrega.

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