Crime Thriller: Les Noces and Oedipus Rex at the Oper Wuppertal

Stravinsky – Les Noces

Soprano – Ralitsa Ralinova
Mezzo-Soprano – Iris Marie Sojer
Tenor – Jeon Sangmin
Bass – Sebastian Campione

Stravinsky – Oedipus Rex

Œdipe – Mirko Roschkowski
Jocaste – Almuth Herbst
Créon – Simon Stricker
Tirésias – Sebastian Campione
Le berger – Jeon Sangmin
Le messager – Jeong Daegyun
Le narrateur – Gregor Henze

Extra-Chor der Wuppertaler Bühnen, Opernchor der Wuppertaler Bühnen, Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal / Johannes Pell.
Stage director – Timofey Kulyabin

Oper Wuppertal, Wuppertal, Germany.  Saturday, October 19th, 2019.

Upon first sight, what could unite these two Stravinsky works of Les Noces and Oedipus Rex?  Tonight’s director, Timofey Kulyabin, had quite an inspired idea.  He creates an evening that’s effectively an opera in two acts.  The first, setting the scene for the drama later, is Oedipus and Jocasta’s wedding, set in what could be an expatriate Russian community keeping the old traditions alive, including the babushka dressing the bride.  The second, illustrates Oedipus’s subsequent fall from grace.

Photo: © Björn Hickmann

Kulyabin adds an additional layer in that he sets the action as a detective thriller.  As the curtain rises, we see an unnamed detective, with a family tree of Oedipus’s family, in his office musing on the events and what could have happened.  Later to be revealed as the narrator of Oedipus Rex, he views the wedding as if in flashback, putting the events together in his mind.  There’s some interesting insight here – we see Oedipus contaminating the wedding punch with what appears to be poison, which later contributes to the death of his step-father, Polybus, and which also causes the plague from which the inhabitants of Thebes implore Oedipus for relief.  He creates a compelling theatrical narrative, one rich in insight – making much of the characters’ motivations, especially in a closing scene (no spoilers) which reveals a surprising twist to Jocasta’s part in the story.

Photo: © Björn Hickmann

If there is one thing that convinces slightly less, it’s the delivery of the narrator/detective, Gregor Henze.  Rather than the declamatory oratory one would expect (and could certainly have worked in this context – perhaps giving evidence in the subsequent court case) instead, he delivers his lines as if questioning, interrogating a double of Oedipus, his bloody eyes covered.  This is accompanied, at times, by him tapping his pen on the table, at others by him lengthily slurping his coffee.  The outcome is that it slows down this extremely taught drama.  It’s a shame because this is otherwise a very good and insightful staging.

Photo: © Björn Hickmann

Musically, it reflected well on the standards of the house.  Les Noces was apparently sung in French, but frankly it was impossible to discern any actual words.  Mirko Roschkowski has the ideal voice for Oedipus.  The voice sits quite high and he brings to the role a lyrical mellifluousness ideally matched to the music.  He navigated the tricky tessitura of the role with ease.  He’s also an extremely watchable stage presence, managing to hold the stage even when not singing during Les Noces, illustrating his backstory.  He also savoured the text, spitting out the word ‘cecidi’ with horror, once the true realization of his role in the tragedy became apparent.

Photo: © Björn Hickmann

As Jocasta, Almuth Herbst, was also an expressive actress, providing an imperious presence on stage.  She delivered her music with uninhibited extraversion in a rustic-toned mezzo.  Simon Stricker sang Creon in a grainy bass with impressive breath control, while Sebastian Campione was a world-weary Tiresias, sung in a weather-beaten bass.  As the soprano in Les Noces, Ralitsa Ralinova sang with an attractive lyric soprano with a steely core, though I must admit to having no idea what language she was singing in.  Jeon Sangmin sang the Shepherd and the Noces tenor in a sappy, well-schooled tenor, while Jeong Daegyun sang the Messenger in a youthful yet resonant lyric baritone.

Photo: © Björn Hickmann

The house forces gave a decent account of themselves under Johannes Pell’s direction, particularly in Les Noces.  The four pianists (Michael Cook, Hayashida Maki, Ishizaka Koji, William Shaw) and orchestral percussionists gave that work an irresistible rhythmic impetus that, in a house this intimately sized, was contagious in its drive.  There were some lapses in stage/pit coordination in Oedipus Rex, with the trumpets in particular having some spectacular misfires.  The chorus sopranos also had some disagreements about pitching in places.  The chorus gentlemen had been well prepared in Oedipus Rex by Markus Baisch, singing with discipline and strength.  There were a few ragged entries in the orchestra here and there, but overall the quality of the playing was respectable.  Pell gave us some nicely fluid tempi in Oedipus Rex, which made it even more regrettable that the action was held up by the business with the Narrator.

Photo: © Björn Hickmann

Overall, this was a satisfying evening in the theatre.  We had an intelligent staging that created a cogent and compelling theatrical narrative from two disparate works.  Musically, it was respectable and in Mirko Roschkowski’s Oedipus, much more than that.  It was most certainly worth the journey.

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