Mlada Khudoley (soprano*), Ekaterina Semchuk (Jocasta), Olga Savova (mezzo-soprano*), Sergei Semishkur (Oedipus), Alexander Timchenko (Shepherd, tenor*), Mikhail Petrenko (Tiresias), Evgeny Nikitin (Creon, Messenger), Andrei Serov ( bass*), Gérard Depardieu (Narrator)

Orchestra and chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, c. Valery Gergiev

(1 Hybrid SACD, 74 min. Mariinsky Label MAR0510)


The performance and recording history of Stravinsky’s post-Russian style vocal works by Russian forces is almost non-existent, with the language a likely barrier. Oedipus Rex would seem to be a logical starting point, as Latin is a singer’s lingua franca. However Russian recordings of any works from Stravinsky’s neoclassical or later periods are not so plentiful either, which indicates that his shift of sensibility in the early 1920’s, expunging his surface Russian-ness and replacing it with a more codified, allusive aesthetic, does not chime with Russian performing tradition. It certainly seems so here. Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces offer an accurate but generalized Oedipus Rex in full, too upholstered sound, that feels careful and score-bound. One feels that the insights generated by Bernstein’s extraordinary analysis of the piece in his 1972 Harvard Lectures, (in tandem with a recording), detailing the full magpie eclecticism of Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, with references to Handel, Verdi, Meyerbeer and more, have not registered. Take Oedipus’s ‘Invidia fortunam odit’ - his honey-tongued accusation of a conspiracy to de-throne him towards the end of the first part, couched in a suave, ingratiating lyricism. Here Gergiev’s tempo feels sluggish, the singing is effortful and the intentional divergence of musical and dramatic message does not register as irony. Following this, the chorus proclaiming Jocasta is too rushed, lacking flash triumphalism in the teeth of catastrophe. It all feels lumpen and literal. The so precisely observed rhythmic differentiation that adds edge to Oedipus’s shatteringly simple realization of the truth in Act 2, is either botched, or misread, and the return of the opening music at the conclusion, where the blinded Oedipus is revealed is innocent of cumulative frisson.  Serge Semishkur’s Oedipus is correct, but not engaged, and is out-sung by the Shepherd, who negotiates Stravinsky’s florid demands more nimbly. The other singers are better, Ekaterina Semenchuk’s Jocasta has a covered tone and rasping chest that raises the temperature, Mikhail Petrenko is authoritative as Tiresias, and Evgeny Nikitin, though stretched by Creon’s upper reaches is powerful as the Messenger. Gérard Depardieu delivers Cocteau’s narrations with aplomb, though his histrionics describing the final calamity surely undermine the intended distancing effect. In a full field, this performance is not competitive.


The genre-bending Les Noces is probably outside the scope of this magazine, though had Stravinsky classified it as an opera, instead of a dance-cantata, we would doubtless accept it as such. Here Gergiev and his forces are on much surer ground. It is a huge plus to have soloists and chorus grounded in the Russian tradition, even if they are overwhelmed on occasion by the splendour of the sonic palette, that captures great detail from the four pianists and percussionists. Mlada Khudoley’s soprano is not easy on the ear, and Andrei Serov’s bass can be approximate in pitch, but this a performance with bags of character and earthy vitality. 


© Julian Grant 2010