This paper proposes a rehabilitation of the Latin libretto by Jean Daniélou commissioned by Igor Stravinsky for his 1927 opera Oedipus Rex. After a brief discussion of Stravinsky's aims in commissioning the libretto in a language inaccessible to most of his audience, I oppose the generally dismissive attitude of scholars by arguing that the libretto is closely aligned with Stravinsky's intention to produce a monumental opera and that Daniélou was not (as has been assumed) attempting to reproduce the effects of Sophocles' Greek, but was influenced and inspired by the Latin of Seneca's tragedies to provide a verbal complement to the stark, monolithic monumentality of the music. My argument will be conducted by close analysis of select passages from the libretto and will be illustrated by a short audio-visual excerpt from a 1992 production which likewise responds to the stark monumentality of the music.
Igor Stravinsky's 1927 opera Oedipus Rex is an international curiosity both in its creation and in its reception. The Russian composer, who lived in Russia, France, Switzerland, and the US, had the idea to 'compose an opera in Latin based on a universally known tragedy of the ancient world' (quoted at Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky: Oedipus Rex. Cambridge Music Handbooks (Cambridge, 1993) 6). He decided on Sophocles' Oedipus The King and he asked the French novelist, playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau to abridge it, as he had done with Antigone in 1922. Stravinsky didn't like the result and sent it back for revisions a couple of times. Finally the stripped-down libretto was translated into Latin by the young Jean Daniélou, who later became an eminent Jesuit priest. (On this process see Paul Bauschatz 'Oedipus, Stravinsky and Cocteau Recompose Sophocles' Comparative Literature 43 (1991) 150-70.) Add to this internationalism that the most notable modern production was staged in Japan in 1992 by Julie Taymor, the extraordinary American stage, opera and movie director, designer and writer, who combined Japanese dramatic forms with western singers including Jessye Norman and Bryn Terfel.
As background, I start by explaining that Stravinsky's central aim was to present monumental music: a static opera-oratorio, with minimum distractions from the music. He called his Oedipus Rex a 'still life'. The word 'monumental' is taken directly from Stravinsky himself; it is also used at the very start by the narrator figure. This aim of monumentality explains his choice of Latin, which was designed to be hieratic–statuesque, but obscure. This aim also explains his prescription that the singers wear masks–he wanted their individuality as performers obliterated–and remain seated throughout, immobilized like statues.
I now move to focus upon the libretto and glance briefly at scholars' dismissal of Daniélou's Latin. For example, McDonald (Marianne McDonald 'The Dramatic Legacy of Myth: Oedipus in Opera, Radio, Television and Film' in The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Theatre, eds Marianne McDonald and Michael J. Walton (Cambridge, 2007) 306): 'his Latin hardly equaled the rich Greek of Sophocles, or even the richly poetic Latin of Virgil, but was an etiolated Church Latin, and even contained errors. In short it was almost a parody of the original Greek text.' I argue that this is a misunderstanding: I explain how the Latin libretto matches Stravinsky's aims and, through examination of several excerpts, I demonstrate how linguistic monumentality is achieved by Daniélou. Then I argue that Daniélou turned to Seneca's Latin tragedy Oedipus for inspiration and deployed vocabulary and effects taken from the Latin play. No one has suspected or seen this before. A few telling examples clinch the argument. In conclusion, an audio-visual illustration from the 1992 Taymor production provides a fully realized demonstration of the starkness and austerity of libretto and music alike.