Opera Philadelphia returned to Broad Street on 21st January for the first time in 720 days, but the company’s presentation of Oedipus Rex made for a somewhat awkward homecoming. Stravinsky’s oratorio was given at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall rather than at the troupe’s usual venue, the Academy of Music, and although the audience and staff seemed genuinely happy to have pulled off the opening performance amid the Omicron surge, the surroundings gave a slightly impersonal feeling to the evening. Although not technically an opera, the music brims with dramatic tension, and Jean Cocteau’s libretto and narration retain the great theatrical flair and moral weight of Sophocles’ urtext. Presenting the work without staging as a pure concert deprived the spectators of the boundless creativity that we have come to expect from Opera Philadelphia’s inventive productions.

Rehanna Thelwell, William Burden and Corrado Rovaris
© Dominic M Mercier

It also drove home the fact that the opera’s pit band, though usually polished, is not a symphony orchestra. There were signs of under-rehearsal, including some notable tuning issues in the brass section, coordination and entrance problems among the woodwinds, and a tendency to play fast and loose with volume that often overwhelmed the singers. Conductor Corrado Rovaris bulldozed through some of the score’s more refined passages in an attempt to foster a sense of dread that wasn’t needed. The work’s progression from valiant heroism to unspeakable tragedy felt too neatly telegraphed from the beginning.

Charlotte Blake Alston narrates Oedipus Rex
© Dominic M Mercier

Veteran tenor William Burden sang the title role with a pliant, still-youthful tone that communicated the inexperience and callous nature of his character. He was also the only principal who was consistently audible. The sheer beauty of Rehanna Thelwell’s sound compensated for frequently approximated pitches, and her distinctive presence suited Queen Jocasta well. The evening came alive in her reading of “Nonn’ erubeskite, reges” and subsequent scene of guilty recrimination with Burden’s Oedipus. Mark S Doss’ dual assumption of Creon and the Messenger lacked vocal heft and dramatic commitment, and Jonathan Lemalu’s Tiresias was similarly monochromatic. Curtis Institute of Music student Ethan Burck jumped into the role of the Shepherd during rehearsals and deserves commendation. Cocteau’s narration was translated to English from the usual French. Charlotte Blake Alston declaimed it with poise but lacked a necessary ironic dimension.

Under Elizabeth Braden’s preparation, the all-male chorus won the evening for crisp dynamics and completely unified style, although the decision to keep them masked throughout the performance led to some muffled diction. Yet it also added a touch of extra-textual weight to a work that begins with the words Kaedit nos pestos, Theba peste moritur (A plague is upon us – Thebes is dying of plague).

Tiffany Townsend sings George Walker’s Lilacs
© Dominic M Mercier

The company offered George Walker’s Lilacs as a curtain raiser. This setting of four sections of Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Music, yet aside from some creative orchestrations that mimic the onomatopoetic nature of Whitman’s poetry, it comes across as pleasant but vague. Soprano Tiffany Townsend’s liberal deployment of vibrato seemed not always in her control, and as with the oratorio soloists, she could not always be reliably heard.