Monday, October 7, 2013

Science Fiction Double Feature: Stravinsky and Stockhausen – An Opera-ish Oratorio and an Instrumental Excerpt

Saturday afternoon, I was browsing around the web, mostly enjoying clicking all the links posted at, a great site that lists lots of opera (and vocal) performances available online, to see which ones I might actually be able to watch. I was excited to find out I can actually access many recordings on France TV’s Culturebox website. Another great feature is the Operapedia section, which carries links to synopses, articles, and even some libretti and scores.

Anyway, I eventually landed back at Arte LiveWeb, already a favorite site, for what turned out to be an odd double* feature. I noticed they were about to broadcast Helicopter Quartet  from Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light). The Elysian Quartet was at that very moment preparing to take flight from the Nuit Blanche Festival in Paris.

Now, Helicopter Quartet contains no singing, but it is from an opera and it easily falls under the category of performance art. The video is not yet archived on Arte, probably because there were a handful of technical glitches during the live transmission. It’s an odd work, of course you could say that about most (or all) of Stockhausen’s music. But the performance was oddly exciting and engaging, too. Part of the enjoyment for me was the knowledge that it was happening live, as I watched. (I love the internet!) 

If you want to know more, there is a detailed introduction to the work at And if you can’t wait for the Arte video, there is a recording of the Elysian quartet’s prize-winning performance of the work in Birmingham—part of a complete performance of Mittwoch aus Licht last spring.  There's also a teaser video of the Paris performance at the French Télérama website.

The Stockhausen work made an interesting lead-in to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. This work is from his ne0-classical period, and Stravinsky deliberately distances us from the plot, by casting it as an oratorio sung in Latin. He further distances us with spoken narration, in the vernacular (originally French, written by Jean Cocteau; in this production, it’s Hungarian), that stops the action to tell us what’s about to happen. 

Despite these distancing techniques, the drama still is dramatic. This production is ritualistic, combining formal processions, dance, and strong singing from the principles—particularly tenor Christophe Poncet as Oedipus and mezzo-soprano Joelle Charlier as Jocasta. The choral and orchestral work is less impressive, but not at all bad). The two acts of Oedipus Rex run for less than an hour. I highly recommend spending the time to watch and listen. Subtitles are in French.

*Triple Feature, actually. In between the two operatic bits, I watched the Labeque sisters perform the Poulenc Concerto for two pianos, also on Arte. It was an exciting performance by pianists and orchestra alike, but I found the video production annoying—too  many fast cuts, and often focusing on the pianist who was not playing, or at least not playing the interesting bits.) The concerto starts about 25 minutes in.


  1. I think you had a way more fun Saturday than I did! (I listened to an iffy recording of Don Carlos and then read about the Seven Years War for like five hours.) The Helicopter Quartet sounds really cool.

    1. 7-year's war - bleah! The quartet is pretty cool. It's kind of literal, the strings portray the ascent and descent, and do lots of tremolos, in imitation of and counterpoint with the helicopter rotors, which are miked and mixed in, too.

  2. Man, I love this post. A wealth of new links to save, plus the Helicopters.

    1. Thanks. I am thinking about doing a separate post (I am sure it's been done by many others already) about great sites that are either sources for performances and/or reference. And in the spirit of cross-posting, you can get pdfs of both the vocal/piano score and the full score for La Fanciulla del West at Operapedia.


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