Oedipus in rehearsal
with Rafael Kubelik, 1967
Even before the performance of ›Antigonae‹ (1949), Orff had already determined to approach its »companion work«. In view of the length of Sophocles' text, it was necessary to find a concentrated style of declamation giving priority to the spoken word, as abridgements were for Orff untenable.
Orff’s musical-dramatic interpretation was based on the style of Antigone and thereby dissociated itself to an even greater degree from any remaining operatic concepts.
Orff took Hölderlin’s version as a basis and staged the text without abridgements. As he placed great importance on the constant comprehensibility of the text, he dispensed almost entirely with coloratura and melisma so that the singer presents the text in a direct reproduction of the syllables in musical notes. He also reduced the orchestra to a core of »beaten« instruments which, in addition to percussion, xylophone and similar instruments, also included the piano: four of these instruments were placed in the orchestra pit. The string section was reduced to several double basses.
In correspondence to the plot which was reduced to its essentials, Carl Orff composed extremely economical music which limits itself to the setting of small and brief dramatic highlights. This work cannot be termed as an opera: it is more a drama with background music.
The singers are confronted by the extremely difficult task of finding their notes without harmonic or melodic support from the orchestra. This occurs immediately in the opening scene at the entrance of Oedipus who begins an introductory chant solely on the note of C with no orchestral accompaniment. Out of the chorus which enters on the right and left, two priests emerge and answer Oedipus, also in a long passage on a single note which only rises in a brief figure at the culmination of the declamation. This fixation on a single note underlines the declamatory aspect, as the music does not detract from the text through a pleasant melody. This also lends the performance greater intensity.
Only Jocasta – as the single woman among the group of kings and priests – is permitted to break out of the – literally – monotone singing style and expresses more intensive emotional aspects in her more varied vocal line. She builds the musical antithesis to Oedipus and Creon who both cast suspicion on each other in an argumentative »sprechgesang« in which Oedipus does not hesitate to utter serious threats.
The widely acclaimed first performance of the work took place within the framework of an Orff festival week. Whereas the press reviews underlined the high standard of the performance, the opinions on the work itself were primarily critical. Subsequent performances have however increased the acceptability of the composition.
 CO-Dok VII,207;  Werner Thomas in: Pipers Enzyklopädie des Musiktheaters, Vol. 4, Munich 1991, p.581 ff.;  www.egotrip.de/theater/0607/0607_Oidipus.html, Großes Haus des Staatstheaters Darmstadt, performance in December 2006, Carl Orff’s Oedipus; Barbara Aumüller
Images : 1 Rudolf Betz; 2/3/6 Fayer Vienna; 4 Foto: Madeline Winkler-Betzendahl; German Theatre Museum Munich
Video: Media Programme/Werner Lütje, 1990