Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex is widely regarded as one of the most significant stage works of the twentieth century. Composed in 1926–1927 to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, the ‘opera-oratorio’ (Stravinsky’s term for the genre) received its premi?re in May 1927 at the Théâtre Sarah Sarah Bernhardt in Paris. Stravinsky wanted to have an ancient theme that was so well known to the audiences that its plot would not have to be presented from beginning to end. ‘I wished to leave the play, as play, behind. I thought to distil the dramatic essence by this, and to free myself for a greater degree of focus on a purely musical dramatisation.’ He decided to use Latin as the language of the drama; Latin being a sacred language that was ‘not dead but turned to stone and so monumentalized as to have become immune from all risk of vulgarisation.’ Eventually he decided on Oedipus and personally contributed to developing the final version of the text which was turned over to Abbé Jean Daniélou who translated it into Latin.
Stravinsky was very specific about the stage. The members of the chorus were to wear masks, sit in a single row and sing their part from manuscript scrolls. The soloists stood on stands of different heights in rigid costumes and masks, with their hands and heads moving only, and being lit only when they were singing. Connecting the scenes, the Narrator recalled the events in the mother tongue of the audience. Only the Messenger, the Shepherd and the Narrator entered and left the stage, all the others stood in one place throughout.
The static character of the stage was counterpointed by the intensity and dramatic flair of the music. Stravinsky composed Oedipus Rex in his ‘neoclassical’ period and it is evocative of the style of Verdi and Händel (the former most evidently in Jocasta’s aria, the latter in Creon’s), but the informed audiences will discover earlier music in many of the motifs, effects of rhythm or orchestration. In the duet of the Messenger and the Shepherd, Stravinsky made subtle references to his earlier ‘Russian’ period.