“Turn the wobble box off gentlemen. You sound positively geriatric.”
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, celebrating his 70th birthday is back. This is his way of asking the choir to sing with less vibrato. He may be at an age where most of us would be considering slowing down, however, nobody seems to have told him how he is supposed to behave.
At the rehearsal in Paris last night, the issue which took the most time to sort out was that of the lighting and the sound quality of the narrator’s microphone. In between conducting sections of the work, John Eliot fires out instructions to the lighting crew in a blend of fluent French and English demanding lighting is increased, moved and generally changed to get the effect he is after.
Oedipus Rex is one of Stravinsky’s more challenging works to get right. The orchestral parts are tricky, often encouraging extreme volume in the woodwind and brass which can easily obliterate the singers, and the rhythmic challenges can turn a performance into a muddled mess. The male chorus parts are extremely tricky and really form part of the orchestral texture rather than a separate entity at the back of the stage. John Eliot has brought his impressive Monteverdi Chorus to the front where they occupy a space at the back of the second violins. The placement of players on the stage is something which he takes very seriously and we often find ourselves moving around a lot to suit the particular venue. As well as the choir at the side and three excellent soloists pulled from their ranks at specific moments, there are also three other soloists dotted around the stage. Stuart Skelton who plays the role of Oedipus declaims from the traditional soloists spot to the side of John Eliot – he is quite astonishing, as is Jennifer Johnson, the only female singer in the piece who plays Jocasta. I haven’t heard such power and flexibility in tone for a long time – and she has her back to me! There is a wonderful moment at the half way point in the piece where everything stops on stage and she calmly walks across to take her place before the choir and orchestra erupts to welcome the singular presence of a female singer. She makes an impact before she sings a note.
And that for me is what singles out this performance of Oedipus from others I have been part of. As a work it lies in the hinterland of opera, cantata and oratorio and has often seemed problematic; if you know the story, a great deal happens, the action itself is often described by the narrator (the husky toned French film star, Fanny Ardant). There is not much action to stage in an operatic sense and so it can become a static parade of musical scenes set up by the text. John Eliot, as well as having the choir and soloists at the front, also has Gidon Saks who plays Creon, standing at the side of the stage (or near the back if you watched in Brussels). The chorus rise as one from their seats and sing simultaneously and this is where the lighting comes in. The orchestra has lit stands and the soloists and chorus are only illuminated when singing otherwise they remain unseen in darkness; it really creates and interesting atmosphere and seems to focus your attention in a way that a brightly lit stage never can.
“No, no…non! I need more light on Fanny,’ shouts John Eliot. Ms Ardant is standing and speaking into the mic but is in darkness until a switch is flicked later than expected.
“No! It’s too slow, it won’t do.” He then slips into French and asks to have the volume of the mic taken down as her voice drowns the orchestra. When he is happy, we try it again and the light appears at the right time, but we are soon stopping again as the chorus stands to sing in total darkness.
Yup, I got that bit. So it continues until John Eliot is confident that everything is right. It seems to me that the lighting engineer needs to have as deep a knowledge of the score as the conductor and performers for this piece, everything needs to be spot on for it to be effective.
When the concert starts, there is an air of excitement and expectation which always goes hand in hand with one of John Eliot’s shows. The urgency he brings to Beethoven symphonies is not confined to that composer alone, he seems to have boundless energy, although he did admit to being a little tired after his Bach Marathons in London and Paris recently. The final piece of showmanship I hadn’t bargained on only became apparent in the show itself as all the soloists and chorus come on in full stage makeup. In line with the narrative subject matter, all performers, except for Jocasta are wearing black and the chorus have white make face paint with black highlights which I imagine from the audience makes them look a little underfed. They also have black headbands which, backstage, makes it look like we’ve been overrun by the Winchester Ninja Association staff choir. The performance starts in total darkness but for the narrator at the back of the stage. “Spectateur!” she growls. The audience is silent for her opening statement and then at once John Eliot’s arm whips back and crashes down as the choir stand, the lights highlight them at the side of the stage and they and the orchestra erupt in the first outburst of the evening. There are 3 and a half bars of sonic violence before a brief respite and then it all starts again before the motor rhythms of Stravinsky’s neo classical period really get going.
As we progress through the piece, I find myself more and more drawn into the performance as the interest moves from one part of the stage to the next. The tension is extraordinary as the choir and orchestra negotiate the tricky rhythms and John Eliot stirs up this dark work.
“Adieu. Adieu Oedipus. On t’amait…”
After the narrators final words the music descends into a bacchanalian frenzy until the opening phrases return and then the repeated cello and bass theme gradually dissipates, the lights fade to black and there is silence. Amazing really. The classical music business like to tie itself in knots about being relevant and how to attract new audiences and here we have simple lighting, simple black and white stage make up and top quality singing, playing and conducting. And it works thrillingly.
Oedipus Rex is performed in London on Thursday 25 April: more details and booking: http://lso.co.uk/sir-john-eliot-gardiner-70th-birthday-concert