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Love Opera? Hate Opera? Try Julie Taymor's Brilliant Oedipus Rex, now on DVD
 -by Lynn Becker

ArchitectureChicago Plus posting from August 4, 2005 





Euripides/Stravinsky/Cocteau/Taymor/Ozawa Oedipus Rex After the Lion King, is there any more famous or lauded director today than Julie Taymor, a status confirmed again by her magical production of The Magic Flute for the Met this season? Add in Sophocles, Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, Jessye Norman, Seiji Ozawa and a young(er) Bryn Terfel - if this production of the opera Oedipus Rex doesn't offer an all-star lineup made in heaven, what does?

What a sad commentary on the current state of marketing opera and classical music that it's taken over a decade to bring this incredible production to DVD (up to now it's been available only on VHS)

And incredible this production is. Taymor takes big chances. Oedipus is a man overlayed with symbol, a puppet head his crown and huge puppet hands at his sides, enough to send you into fits of giggles if the drama weren't so focused and riveting.

The marriage of Sophocles, with his implicit violence depicted only in the voice of the chorus, and the neoclassical Stravinsky - far from the death-dance of Le Sacre - would appear a perfect marriage of dramatic reserve, reinforced by the masks which, as Taylor explains, in an interview that's one of the DVD extras, are inspired by pre-dassical Greek sculptures from the Cyclades, highly simplified abstractions of the human figure and face that express a type rather than an individual personality, just as Stravinsky directed in his opera that the singers function not so much as actors portraying a strongly delineated character, as much as a general type, as in a pageant. Dramatic action is left to the music, which despite the composers protestations to the contrary, explodes with implicit emotion. I once heard Pierre Boulez say in an open rehearsal (and this is a gross paraphrase - I was so stunned to hear such a thing from so famous an ascetic that I was momentarily disoriented) "Stravinsky was well known for saying music - his music particularly - is capable only of expressing itself, and not any sort of underlying emotional content. We all know better, of course." Oedipus Rex is exhibit A.

Cocteau sets the sung text in Latin, but he directs that his narrator speak in the language of the country in which the opera is being performed; in this case, Japan. Here Taylor adds still another brilliant stroke. Her narrator is a Japanese woman, traditionally costumed. As she declaims Cocteau's deliberately oratorical prose, a new dimension is added to the opera: the perspective of gender.

In Taymor's staging, the male chorus is like a tribe of mudmen, attired in the rags of starvation, caked in the dust of drought. One unforgettable image follows another: a soaring vulture superimposed on the stage at the beginning of the opera, Jocasta being wrapped in the woven bounds of her hanging. The dissolution of Oedipus is evoked by the sung Oedipus, tenor Philip Langridge, being doubled in a second Oedipus figure whose cast-like armor is dismembered to disgorge the disgraced king.

This is the story as told by Cocteau's narrator:

The king is caught. He would show himself to all: as a filthy beast, an incestuous monster, a father-killer, a fool. His people drive him (gently, very gently) away. Farewell, farewell poor Oedipus! Farewell Oedipus - we loved you.

This is how Taymor imagines the scene:

The chorus of mudmen stand beneath the downpour that has broken the plague, as stoic and motionless as that field of terra cotta warriors unearthed in China, until their heads turn, ever-so-slightly, as the disgraced king walks past, their eyes shining with pity as they watch the naked, blinded Oedipus taking his first steps on his journey to exile and oblivion.

Under Ozawa's direction, the cast, chorus and Saito Kinen orchestra are firing on all cylinders. In the way she channels the underlying power of both Euripides' text and Stravinky's music, Taymor raises the opera to the level of ritual - not empty gestures as ritual most often becomes, but raw ritual just hatched from primal experience.

This DVD is a "must-have"

(this review originally appeared on

English translation of Narrator's part by E.E. Cummings, copyright 1949 Boosey & Hawkes Inc.


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