Music by Igor Stravinsky
Libretto (in French) by Jean Cocteau, after the play Oedipus Tyrannus by Sophocles
Latin sections translated by Jean Danielou
The narrator enters and addresses the auditorium: “Spectators! You will now hear Oedipus Rex in Latin. To free your ears and your minds from any excess burden, the more so as the opera-oratorio contains only the most important scenes, I will help you to recall Sophocles’ tragedy gradually.
This is how the story unfolds: the people of Thebes are in disarray. The Sphinx has sent a plague down on the city. The chorus begs Oedipus to save the city. Oedipus, the sphinx’s conqueror, promises he will save the people from a new disaster. But he does not realise that he is ruled by forces that are normally only met with in the afterlife. These forces have been preparing a trap for him since his very birth – you will see how it snaps shut.”
Creonte, Oedipus’ brother-in-law, has returned from the oracle to which he had been sent by Oedipus to seek counsel. The oracle demands that the murder of King Laius be avenged, and then the plague will leave the city. The murderer is hidden in Thebes, and must be found whatever the price. Oedipus is proud of his ability to solve riddles. He discovers the murderer and drives his from Thebes. Oedipus ask the prophet to help and begs him to speak the truth. Teiresias avoids giving a reply. He understands that Oedipus is a toy in the hands of the merciless gods. Teiresias’ silence annoys Oedipus. He accuses Creonte of a desire to seize the throne and Teiresias of conspiracy. Enraged at such an unjust slander, the prophet makes his choice and speaks. Thus comes the discovery: the King has committed regicide.
Jocasta appears. She becomes embroiled in the conflict and shames the men for arguing when disaster has struck the city. She does not believe the oracles: oracles lie. For example, it was said that Laius would die at the hand of his own son, while in fact Laius was killed by robbers where three roads met.
A crossroads! A banality! Take heed of this word. It terrifies Oedipus. He remembers that on the road from Corinth, before he met the Sphinx, he killed an old man where three roads met. And if that were Laius? What comes now? Oedipus mustn’t remain here, yet neither can he return to Corinth as the oracle never predicted that he would kill his father and become the husband of his own mother. Oedipus is gripped by terror.
At last a witness to the murder appears – a shepherd. The Messenger informs Oedipus of the death of Polybius, whom Oedipus had considered to be his father, but now it transpires that Polybius was not Oedipus’ natural father.
Jocasta understands everything. She tries to draw Oedipus away, dissuading him from digging deeper into the mystery, but in vain. She herself then flees herself.
Oedipus thinks that she is ashamed of being the wife of a humble impostor. And this is Oedipus, always proud of his ability to solve all riddles! He is in a trap, and only he fails to see this. Suddenly a dreadful conjecture strikes him mind. He is falling. He is falling from a great height.
A disturbing monologue begins: “I saw the dead face of the divine Jocasta,” in which the Messenger tells of how the Queen has hanged herself and Oedipus blinded himself with a golden buckle. His words are taken up by the chorus.
The King has fallen into the trap. May everyone, everyone, see this lowly animal, this half-breed, this madman! He is driven away. He is driven away with unusual pity, with compassion. Farewell, farewell, poor Oedipus! Farewell, Oedipus, you were loved here.
World premiere: 30 May 1927, Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, Paris
Premiere of this production: 10 April 2003, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
Running time 45 minutes
The highlighting of performances by age represents recommendations.
This highlighting is being used in accordance with Federal Law N139-FZ dated 28 July 2012 “On the introduction of changes to the Federal Law ‘On the protection of children from information that may be harmful to their health and development’ and other legislative acts of the Russian Federation.”