Ritual: Oedipus Rex at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos

Stravinsky – Oedipus Rex

Œdipe – Nikolai Schukoff
Jocaste – Cátia Moreso
Créon – Davone Tines
Tirésias – Davone Tines
Le berger – Marco Alves dos Santos
Le messager – João Merino
Le narrateur – João Merino

Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Leo Hussain
Stage director – Ricardo Pais.

Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal.  Sunday, November 13th, 2016.

Today marked my first visit to Lisbon’s beautiful Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.  It really is a jewel of a house – ornately decorated and well looked after, it’s also extremely intimate with seats for 1148.  Lisbon is one of the world’s most captivating cities with fabulous food and wine and a warm and welcoming population.  The opera season is relatively limited, consisting of a handful of productions this season, including Bieito’s much-travelled Carmen last month and David Alden’s Peter Grimes performed in the spring.  Seat prices are affordable with a top price of around 60 Euros.  What the house also offers is a truly outstanding orchestra and a chorus of the kind of quality that one would expect in any major lyric theatre.

Today’s Oedipus Rex, performed alone, with a running time of just under an hour might appear to be quite short measure but it really did make an impact.  The staging was the work of Ricardo Pais, a name new to me, and his production was very much in tune with the hybrid nature of the work as an opera-oratorio.  The 36 gentlemen of the house chorus were ranged in rows at the back of the stage, standing still and commenting on the action.  The speaker, who also later takes on the role of the messenger, initially appears pushing an empty baby stroller across the stage, intimating what comes later.  The soloists enter, in costumes by António Lagarto, and generally sing to the front.  Where it works in by conflating of the role of speaker and messenger, the staging succeeds in bringing home the inevitability of Oedipus’ fate.  At the end, the stroller reappears, pushed by the speaker, this time with the body of Oedipus inside, his eyes gouged out and with bloody arms and feet.  The set itself was dominated by a large aluminum double-door which opened to reveal Oedipus’ first appearance as well as tasteful drapes when Jocasta sang.  As I intimated above, the personenregie was quite basic but this was very much in keeping with the nature of the work.  I found that it worked well without perhaps being particularly memorable.

Photo: © David Rodrigues
Photo: © David Rodrigues

Nikolai Schukoff was a good Oedipus.  Having not heard him for a while I must admit that I find his chestnut-toned tenor has gained a baritonal richness at the bottom I don’t recall hearing before with the very top sounding perhaps somewhat tight.  For my taste, I find that the voice lacks the ideal lyrical edge to negotiate the more melismatic pages of the part but the emissions were always even.  Cátia Moreso brought her plush, rounded mezzo to the role of Jocasta.  It’s a big sound and she certainly has the imperious manner the role calls for with a regal presence both vocal and dramatic.  It’s a bright, soprano-ish sound with a tasteful bottom though I must confess to wishing she had let rip with the chest a few times.

The remainder of the cast was very good.  The Créon and Tirésias, Davone Tines, is a new name to me and a most welcome discovery.  He’s still young but I foresee that his bass will bloom in a few years to something very special indeed.  It’s a handsome, quite complex sound, with good resonance and depth of tone and he clearly is a major new talent.  His consonants were a bit Anglophone at times but hopefully he can work on this.  João Merino declaimed the Portuguese narration with great authority and a masterful painting of the words.  He is a big stage presence and when he started to sing, his robust and healthy bass-baritone gave much pleasure.  Marco Alves dos Santos was another fine discovery as the Shepherd, an attractive and mellifluous lyric tenor that I hope one day I will get to hear his Oedipus.

Photo: © David Rodrigues
Photo: © David Rodrigues

The chorus was magnificent.  They sang with glorious amplitude and excellent blend yet also kept an individuality to the sound that had real personality – the scintillating vibrato gave it an attractive fizz that recalled a refreshing vinho verde.  The ladies and gentlemen of the house band were also superb, the brass especially so in those fanfares towards the end.  The string intonation was spot-on and ensemble impeccable.  Much of the success was down to Leo Hussain’s conducting in the second Oedipus-based opera I have seen him conduct this year.  He gave us a reading that was alive to the neo-classical precision of Stravinsky’s writing but also phrased with generous sweep.  What makes Hussain stand out is that he genuinely is an opera conductor.  Whereas in last night’s Figaro I left with the impression of a conductor who focused on the band to the detriment of the stage with predictable and apparent results for ensemble, here it was clear that Hussain was leading his singers as much as the band.  I was fortunate to have a seat towards the front of the theatre and to see Hussain at work was very special – he breathes with his singers, gives them space but also keeps the work going.  It sounds quite obvious, but really isn’t always the case with so many conductors.

Photo: © David Rodrigues
Photo: © David Rodrigues

Today’s performance might have been short but it was exceptionally well performed.  We had a staging that stayed true to the hybrid nature of the work as an opera-oratorio even if it was perhaps short on new insights.  We were also given a musically excellent rendition with some honest solo singing, outstanding choral and orchestral support and superb conducting.  Based on the evidence of today, the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos really does deserve a place on any opera lover’s travel plans and the fact that it can be combined with a visit to the magical city of Lisbon means that it really is a must.

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The Teatro Nacional de São Carlos © operatraveller.com
The Teatro Nacional de São Carlos © operatraveller.com

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