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RIHM: Oedipus

spacer E. Golden; Pell, A. Schmidt, Carlson, Dooley; Chorus and Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin, Prick. Production: Friedrich. ArtHaus 101 667, 105 mins., subtitled


Wolfgang Rihm's one-act opera Jakob Lenz maintains a foothold in the repertory, and his violin concerto, Gesungene Zeit, found fervent advocates in Anne-Sofie Mutter and James Levine, but his Oedipus has had a tougher time. Fortunately, this DVD preserves the premiere performance at Berlin's Deutsche Oper in 1987, demonstrating its many merits.

The sound world of Oedipus is intentionally compartmentalized. The orchestral contribution, here under the taut direction of Christoph Prick, is mostly made of woodwind and brass instruments, with prominent percussion parts, but with no string instruments. Late in the work, two solo violinists play piercing high notes as Oedipus blinds himself. An important feature of the score, and the one element that has perhaps not aged well, is the use of amplified offstage spoken voices for the inner thoughts of the characters during confrontations. A full chorus, sparingly used, is offstage as well, but a group of sixteen men representing the elders of Thebes has a prominent onstage role. The use of the slapstick and the xylophone in the orchestra suggests non-Western ritualized theater. Meter is deliberately obscured for much of the time, so that when overtly rhythmic music is used during flashbacks to important events it has real significance. Rihm's experiments with orchestral texture are influenced by Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, but without the latter work's opulence. In its self-contained masses of color, the score comes across as the sonic equivalent of a de Chirico painting.

Rihm's columns of sound are pared down in the final segment of the work until little remains but single, excruciatingly long, unaccompanied vocal notes. This is finely reflected in Götz Friedrich's production, which works with a similar accumulation of intensity. Pinpoint spotlights, close maneuvering of characters within a triangular playing space and masks or half-masks for all the characters except Oedipus are put to precise use. As Oedipus, Andreas Schmidt is in lustrous voice in this cranky music; the effect is akin to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's singing of Aribert Reimann's music. Schmidt, a year before he recorded his luscious Wolfram in Tannhäuser for Giuseppe Sinopoli, maintains beauty of tone against all odds. The intrepid Emily Golden tears up the stage as Jocasta, looking like Death personified by the end, all the while encompassing soprano-to-baritone vocal lines. Her text (Rihm assembled this libretto from Hölderlin's German translation of Sophocles, Nietzsche and Heiner Müller) is remarkably clear. William Dooley's Tiresias is admirably steady.

The work divided listeners at the premiere — there is some terrifying booing at the end — but two elements of this telecast are important. One is that, when so many plays, movies and novels made into operas today are hardly crying out for musicalization, the classics still engage us. (Rihm also gave the Salzburg Festival a Dionysos in 2010.) The other is that this 1987 telecast begins with an eight-minute introduction to the composer's idea, in an interesting and serious manner. Why can't we have that in the U.S.? spacer


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