Santtu-Matias Rouvali makes versatile debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

At his debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra he displayed an effortless flexibility, being equally at home in the unfettered sweep of Italian Romantic opera and the stringent rhythmicity of Stravinsky’s neoclassical opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. “Inexorable Fate” was the theme linking the three items on the programme, and the first two also turned out to share several musical elements.

Rouvali conducts with panache, his arms drawing graceful curves in the air, as he punctuates the music cleanly with small flourishes of his baton. After the opening chords ushered in the inescapable destiny of the title, the overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino took off with refreshing buoyancy. Rouvali kept the details crisp and the tone brilliant even at the swiftest of prestos. He applied the same care in the phrasing of Ariadne, the last composition by Theo Verbey, who died unexpectedly last October, conceived as a companion piece to the Stravinsky. Unlike Oedipus’s unsuccessful efforts to escape the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Ariadne manages to outsmart the labyrinth of fate by giving Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, a ball of thread that guides him out of the maze. Lasting around twenty minutes, Ariadne, like Verdi’s overture, combines transparent lyricism with dramatic progression. Starting out with fragile flute figures, it swells to include the full complement of strings. When the whole range of the brass comes in with a driving motif, there is sinister menace. The piece constantly changes colour and texture, making use of the whole orchestra. Before all the sections unite for a final restrained crescendo, an ethereal violin solo rises, haloed by a harp. Although Verbey didn’t describe the work programmatically, it was easy to imagine the Cretan princess’s thread unwinding in the woodwinds and the rumbling monster charging in the horns. Ariadne is a highly gratifying swansong and the RCO gave it a lustrous world premiere.

They carried over that burnished sound to Oedipus Rex, with its starring roles for the sinuous clarinet solo, bulldozing brass and its main motor, the pummelling percussion. Rouvali’s reading was dynamically exciting and extremely polished, maybe a tad too polished for the more savage moments. A little snorting raucousness in the fanfares wouldn’t have been out of place, but one can’t really cavil about such a fine interpretation, which also boasted a superlative choir. The choir in Oedipus Rex is a dominating presence and acts as a Greek chorus. The men of the Latvian State Choir were not only technically impeccable, but got every mood and nuance right—the magnificent bombast of the royal ovations, the gossipy whispers and the terrible deluge with which they pronounce Oedipus the foulest of monsters before they send him away with a tender farewell. The work reached its dramatic peak in their scene with the Messenger and the Shepherd, sterlingly sung by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and tenor Attilio Glaser. Van Horn was also a vocally imposing, dangerous-sounding Creon. Bass-baritone Shenyang emitted gravitas as the prophet Tiresias, spitting out ominous consonants when Oedipus enrages him into disclosure.

In the spirit of the formalistic nature of the work, director Gijs de Lange had the soloists, whose faces were painted with white masks, standing stiff, moving only their arms in stylized gestures. This worked for Van Horn, Glaser and Shenyang, who all benefited from singing downstage. Tenor Lance Ryan, however, was not helped by being sent behind the orchestra when his curiously expressionless Oedipus starts to piece the horrific revelations together. The same applied to a certain extent to soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, who, after a vocally unstable start, sang a warm and textually focused Jocasta. Pity about her physical remoteness behind the double basses. The decision not to subtitle the Latin text was a mistake. While De Lange’s wish to maintain audience detachment was a valid one, subtitles would have been a boon to those unfamiliar with the work. Stravinsky himself built in enough alienating features, exploiting ritualistic repetition and incongruity between text and music, as when he set the description of Oedipus’s self-blinding as a rowdy drinking chorus. Paradoxically, actor Pierre Bokma, unlike most of his predecessors, stayed away from stagey declamation and chose to deliver the Dutch narration naturalistically, as if talking to a camera. Whether or not this was a conscious choice, it was the most alienating effect of all.

Jenny Camilleri

Igor Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex
Theo Verbey: Ariadne (World Premiere)
Giuseppe Verdi: Overture to La forza del destino

Lance Ryan (tenor), Oedipus; Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano), Jocasta; Christian Van Horn (bass-baritone), Creon/Messenger; Shenyang (bass-baritone), Tiresias: Attilio Glaser (tenor), Shepherd; Pierre Bokma, Narrator. Gijs de Lange, Mise-en-espace. Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Conductor. Latvian State Choir. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on Thursday, the 30th of January, 2020.

image_description=Santtu-Matias Rouvali [Photo by Kaapo Kamu]
product_title=Santtu-Matias Rouvali makes versatile debut with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Santtu-Matias Rouvali [Photo by Kaapo Kamu]