For scholars of Opera/Stravinsky/theatre/Ancient history- there is alot to unpack in this production of Oedipus Rex & Symphony of Psalms… alot about subversion of the text- the placement in time and place- about authorship of performance- about innovation as opposed to honouring the origins of a story. Peter Sellars- known for his radical retellings of some of the great/ancient/ epic stories of the theatre /Opera (and for his very shortlived position as the head of the Adelaide Festival of Arts which ran for a year)- is a superstar in the world of theatre direction. For those who follow director’s works and their career- this is a big deal. For those who love Stravinsky- this production is a big deal. For those who love Opera- this production is a big deal.

This is my first experience of a Peter Sellar’s production… and my first of Stravinsky’s Oedipus (not surprising since it was last perfomed in Sydney over 30 years ago and I wasn’t yet born)… and although I have researched the history of the production and the artists (as I always do)… I don’t feel as qualified as Peter McCallum is to talk about the production in an historical sense (I’ve only seen 6 Operas in my lifetime… ) but I can offer my own modest perspective…

Most interestingly for me was the ten minutes after the show- walking out of the COncert Hall and walking along the perimeter of waters edge- we passed the writhing mass of people at The Opera Bar who’s background music was a dizzying throb of pop music intermingled with the barking of booze fuelled chatter. Along the Writers Walk a little further was the ambient noise of a casio piano cover band with a lead singer who had license mid-song for some conversational meanderings for band member introductions. All the while I held in me the tender paced meditative warmth of the orchestra and thought how confusing it feels to try to make sense of a piece of work that contains so much space and time- and extended moments of lingering imagery- when we live in a constant state of saturation of hyped-up rhythm.

I also thought of all the folks at Opera in the Domain sitting on blankets with their boxes of chadonnay and jatz crackers… and considered those who paid $50 standing room tickets at the Sellar’s Oedipus… and I thought about culture- and it’s ability to always survive…

First published on www.australianstage.com.au

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex & Symphony of Psalms is a masterpiece which transcends time and place, harnessing the power of many languages and hundreds of local and internationally acclaimed artists that converge onto the Concert Hall Stage at the Sydney Opera House.

Sophocles’ story of a King who murders his father and marries his mother- is well ingrained in the canon of our social consciousness and comes alive in this production reinvented by Stravinsky and Cocteau and now directed by Peter Sellars.

An ancient Greek text, re-created by a Russian composer, with libretto translated into Latin and narration translated by a Frenchman and re-translated into English, directed by an American, with design elements by an Ethiopian, performed by Australians (and Americans), lead by a Portuguese born conductor- this is truly unique International collaboration.

A plague is destroying their city when the Thebans implore King Oedipus to find the cause of the plague. Oedipus sends his brother-in-law Creon to the oracle at Delphi to who claims that the plague is the result of corruption and evil in the city- namely the murderer of King Laius – the previous Theban King. In an attempt to discover the identity of the murderer, Oedipus questions Tiresias- a blind soothsayer- who identifies that a King killed the King. Jocasta, Oedipus’wife believes that all Oracles lie as a prediction that her husband would be killed by her son, she had heard previously did not come true as they murdered their son by mutilating his feet and leaving him on a mountainside when he was a baby to die. However it is soon uncovered that the baby, was indeed Oedipus, who was rescued by a shepherd and and later adopted by King Polybus- and that the prophecy had indeed come true- Oedipus unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother, Jocasta. In the horror of it all, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus gouges out his eyes with her broaches and later dies.

The first several rows of the concert hall have been removed to allow necessary room for a curved platform to encircle the orchestra. A two metre high platform is built ontop of the concert hall stage- and is bare except for seven thrones designed by Elias Sime. Powerful footlights splash upwards onto the Oedipus casting shadows of enormous twisted shapes onto the back wall, whilst on the platform below an army of contemporary clothed chorus writhe, setting the scene of the plague ridden Thebes.

This is not Opera with its full trimmings and velvet curtain- but a raw and revealing ritualised retelling of Oedipus. Shocking in scale and surprising in its simplicity- the production itself immerses the audience into a collective experience of darkness- like that of Oedipus’ ignorance and eventual blindness. Paula Arundell’s Antigone is beautifully elegant and fiercely commanding- clearly leading us through the story with an equal footing of public and private shame. Roderick Dixon’s Oedipus is impressive and beautifully balances Yvonne Kenny’s authoritative Jocasta. Ryan McKinny and Daniel Montenegro complete the cast with beautifully rich solos.

Some of the chorus work was at times distracting- the synchronicity of hand gestures sometimes not as crisp or as direct as I had hoped, lessened the overall effect. Similarly the practical challenges of accommodating and manouevering the sheer quantity of performers especially from the stage were not overcome- but rather the performers after act one bottle necked in exiting the stage.

However- this was truly a breathtaking and brave production which sought to recreate and re-invent the well-known story on a scale which is rarely experienced on Sydney stages.