The grand finale to the Philharmonia’s “Myths & Rituals” series came to a strikingly visual and musical close on Friday with gripping semi-staged performances of two of Stravinsky’s most celebrated scores. The success of the evening was as much musical as it was artistic, and while some may decry the interpretative ideas of Director Peter Sellars, there was no doubting his imaginative (and possibly bizarre) leap in fusing together virtually as one Oedipus rex and the Symphony of Psalms under the heading Tragedy.

Laurel Jenkins, Emily Barber, Joseph Kaiser and Katarina Dalayman © Camilla Greenwell
Laurel Jenkins, Emily Barber, Joseph Kaiser and Katarina Dalayman
© Camilla Greenwell

Such a heading is imprecise for works that might better suit the label Tragedy and Belief, but both here made an ideal coupling not least for their use of Latin texts and for being products of Stravinsky’s Neo-classical phase. But where Classical Myth and Christian doctrine might otherwise stand apart in performances, Sellars forged an intriguing link between the works by bringing back the exiled and blinded Oedipus (Joseph Kaiser) onto the platform for the Symphony in a transformative journey from suffering to salvation suggested by a square of neon lighting at the front of the stage. Returning also from their earlier roles in Oedipus rex were narrator/actress Emily Barber and dancer Laurel Jenkins Tentindo.

Thus, the Symphony of Psalms formed a thought provoking conclusion to Oedipus rex. Both performances were distinguished by first rate singing from three Swedish choirs ((all casually dressed in mixed shades of blue and singing from memory) where intonation and blend were second-to-none. The Orphei Drängar male choir (as the men of Thebes) were powerfully expressive commentators in Oedipus rex, their pleas for deliverance from the plague physically amplified by Sellar’s stock-in-trade semaphore. They were joined by the womens’ voices of Gustaf Sjökvists Kammarkor and Sofia Vokalensemble for the Symphony of Psalms where physical, ritualistic movements from all singers continued to excite or distract. Comments overheard afterwards indicated some division in the value of these kinaesthetics.

Laurel Jenkins and Sir Willard White © Camilla Greenwell
Laurel Jenkins and Sir Willard White
© Camilla Greenwell

If only the singing from the three soloists for Oedipus rex had been as impressive as the chorus. In the title role Joseph Kaiser provided plenty of swagger and suffering (Invidia fortunam odit was nicely done) but the lack of vocal weight robbed him of real authority. An imposing Willard White (as Créon, Tiresias and the Messenger) showed that there had once been a wonderfully sonorous voice, while Katarina Dalayman delivered warmth (notably in her opening aria) but not clarity as Jocasta. The light clear tones of Joshua Stewart made a pleasing Shepherd.

Most convincing was Jean Cocteau’s narration delivered by Emily Barber who, cast by Sellars as the king’s daughter Antigone, was utterly persuasive. Sharing the platform with her were atmospheric props by contemporary artist Elias Sime; pre classical-looking masks and thrones with a nod to his Ethiopian background. Behind them were the excellent Philharmonia who were magnificently disciplined and supportive throughout, rarely intruding on the singers and always responsive to Salonen’s fluid tempi. Strains of Bach in the Symphony of Psalms were lovingly rendered as was a wonderfully luminous “Alleluia” at its close.

If for some, an idiosyncratic Sellars had been over intrusive in his interpretation, these were handsome performances that brought exotic new life into familiar scores.