It was deja vu all over again at Oedipus for me.
At my very first festival, in 1990, the Gate Theatre of Dublin mounted a production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, done with highly stylized, mannered, and often slow-motion movements. The actors were spread across the stage in a tableau behind a long table (think Last Supper).
When the stage lights came up for Oedipus, there was a long table with actors lined up behind it their arms and heads held in odd positions. The action stated with slow and exaggerated movements.
That Salome was directed by Steven Berkoff, who is making his return to the festival for the first time since 1990 as director of Oedipus. I’m not sure how often a director should be permitted to take such a similar approach, but I suppose that twice in 20 years is OK. I didn’t appreciate Salome very much at the time, but decided a couple of years later that I had seen something remarkable and just wasn’t smart or experienced enough to know it.
I don’t think that’s quite the case with Oedipus. I loved what was going on with the chorus and as far as I’m concerned they were the real stars of Berkoff’s adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy. Considering that many people already know the horrible story of Oedipus and the big secret is more or less revealed 30 minutes into the play, this production was able to maintain suspense and tension to the very end.
But for me, it was just not big and scary enough.
What was big and scary and ultimately redemptive enough for me was the festival orchestra’s performance of John Adams’ Harmonielehre.
If you read the extensive program notes in the festival book it will tell you that the 1985 piece was a turning point for the composer, a “statement in the belief of the power of tonality,” and the product of dreams he had about Schoenberg, the mystic Meister Eckhardt and a Medieval knight.
For me the work felt like I was experiencing the destruction and recreation of the individual (me, the composer, the conductor, everyone, anyone) and the rebirth and resurrection of all as well. It was beautifully scary, loud, tapped into all the emotions. This along with the String Quartet in C Major by Schubert and the Piano Trio in G minor on the chamber series have been among the most moving musical experiences I’ve ever had.
I’d say the orchestra’s performance of Harmonielehre has been the best thing at the festival.