Peter Sellars’ dramatic realisation of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex has been doing the rounds for a few years now, from its première at Esa-Pekka Salonen’s swansong as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 to the 2016 Festival D'Aix en Provence via a Royal Festival Hall concert semi-staging with the Philharmonia last September. Here it opened the 15th Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm in a full stage presentation at the city’s Royal Opera House, again under Salonen's musical direction.

Joseph Kaiser (Oedipus) © Arne Hyckenberg
Joseph Kaiser (Oedipus)
© Arne Hyckenberg

Oedipus Rex is no stranger to the theatre, though it was conceived more as a static opera-oratorio and with the further distancing effect of having performers wearing masks and singing a Latin text. Sellars reinjects humanity into the myth and makes a full-evening event of it by rounding off the story of Oedipus’ life – via Sophocles’ sequel, Oedipus in Colonus – to a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The narrator, here speaking Cocteau’s text in the original French (I could find no credit for the writer of the introduction to Part 2), is Oedipus’ daughter Antigone, who along with her sister Ismene (a dancer) protects and guides their father.

Violeta Urmana (Jocasta) and Joseph Kaiser (Oedipus) © Arne Hyckenberg
Violeta Urmana (Jocasta) and Joseph Kaiser (Oedipus)
© Arne Hyckenberg

Sellars’ staging is spare but striking. Before the performance begins, a row of seven Ethiopian thrones sit alone on a bare, white stage (Sellars is keen to free the myth from its Western exclusivity). Once the music begins, the visual element is dominated by the omni-present chorus and its trademark (for this director) expressive sign language accompanying everything it sings. Common to most if not all presentations of this production has been the Orphei Dränger, a men’s chorus from Uppsala, the university town just north of Stockholm, and it was obvious that its members have the arm gestures in their system as securely as the music, for this was a powerful, arresting experience in sight and sound.

<i>Oedipus Rex</i> at the Baltic Sea Festival © Arne Hyckenberg
Oedipus Rex at the Baltic Sea Festival
© Arne Hyckenberg

Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser was an ardent, focused Oedipus, and Violeta Urmana brought all her Verdian experience to her imposing cameo as Jocasta in Stravinsky’s cod-operatic scena for her. But most impressive among the solo voices was that of Davóne Tines, an American bass-baritone effectively ‘discovered’ by Sellars, who sang the combined roles of Creon, Tiresias and Messenger with vocal charisma and a compelling stage presence. Joshua Stewart made his mark in the brief role of the Shepherd, and Pauline Cheviller was an eloquent narrator/Antigone.

Davoné Tines (Creon) © Arne Hyckenberg
Davoné Tines (Creon)
© Arne Hyckenberg

Women from the Gustaf Sjökvists Chamber Choir and Sofia Vokalensemble joined the Uppsalans for the symphony and together made a richly textured and incisive sound. Rarely have the Alleluias over Stravinsky’s rolling, tolling bass sounded as cathartic as here, accompanying the idea of Oedipus’ transcendent moment of death. An enormous amount of the musical success of the performance, however, was also down to the vividly drawn orchestral playing from the Kungliga Hovkapellet (Royal Swedish Orchestra) under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s masterly direction. Salonen drew together these two seemingly disparate works with their very different orchestral sound worlds (the symphony lacking upper strings and dominated by wind and percussion) and found their common characters as a counterpart to what happens on stage: myth is humanised and faith universalised.