Just occasionally, an opera comes along which changes the course of operatic history. But just occasionally, operas which should be better-known slip below the horizon and disappear from view. Whilst this is sad in that many operas can stay disappeared for ever, it can also provide opportunities for exciting discoveries. The collaboration between two Italians who had worked together ten years earlier in Vienna, the composer Tommaso Traetta and the librettist Marco Coltellini, who were both now working for Catherine the Great in the Imperial Court in St Petersburg, produced a remarkable opera in Antigona: it breaks all the rules of opera seria, it is full of psychological insight, it has an unprecedented pace and a vibrancy which keep you on the edge of your seat, and it has an ending which ignores the Greek tragedy from which the story is drawn because it is designed to flatter the enlightened rulers of the day, partly Catherine the Great, for whom it was written, but also Frederick the Great of Prussia, to whom Coltellini dedicated the libretto. Antigona is one of those operas which has unjustifiably fallen from view – but it has been rediscovered, revived, performed and recorded. We are lucky – it is a gem.
Tragedia per musica in three acts.
Libretto by Marco Coltellini.
First performed in the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg on 11 November 1772.
The story is taken from the tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. In the fulfilment of a prophecy and despite everyone’s efforts to prevent it from coming true, Oedipus had unwittingly killed his father, Laius, the king of Thebes, and then married his mother, Jocasta, thus becoming king. Unaware of what had happened, they lived happily and produced four children, two sons, Polinices and Eteocles, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Twenty years or so later, when eventually the true circumstances are revealed, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself before being driven into exile from Thebes. Jocasta’s brother, Creon, takes over as regent and decrees that the two brothers, Polinices and Eteocles, should take it in turns to rule Thebes in alternate years. Eteocles has ruled for a year, but then refused to hand over to his brother, who then gathered an army from Argos and invaded Thebes to seize the crown from his brother.
Outside Thebes, an arena has been marked out between the city walls and the camp of the Argive army, and crowds of Theban citizens on the one side and Argive soldiers on the other are getting worked up in preparation for a fight to the death between the two rival brothers, which is the agreed method for solving the impasse. Creon, with Adrastes, a leading Theban magistrate, accompanied by two senior adjudicators from the Argive side, arrive and lead the two crowds in prayers to the gods that justice will be done.
In a dumb-show, the brothers arrive; Eteocles hands the crown and the sceptre to Creon, who ceremoniously places them in a neutral spot in full view. After a dance, the spectators sing a running commentary as Polinices and Eteocles start to fight. It is such a vicious conflict that both of them are killed. The four judges mingle with the crowds as soldiers dismantle the arena and two biers are brought out, ready to carry the bodies away. Creon announces that heaven has resolved the conflict, but at a terrible cost, since the royal bloodline is now broken, and the throne is empty. He calls on the Argive forces to respect their promises and end the fighting, and he asks the Thebans to choose a worthy ruler. Adrastes speaks for the Theban people and says that no-one is more worthy than Creon himself. He offers the royal regalia to Creon, who at first declines to accept, but when he is hailed king by the people, he agrees. Adrastes crowns him, commenting that when Antigone marries Creon’s son Hemon, with whom she is already in love, the royal line can be restored. The Theban people endorse this, wishing Creon a long reign and hoping for a peaceful future. Creon acknowledges all this, and then decrees that because Eteocles fought loyally for his country, he will be given a full state funeral, but that because Polinices brought only war to his homeland, his body must lie unburied, hated and prey for the carrion crows. The people agree that this is an appropriate decision, because traitors must make their own way to the underworld, unaided by the usual, respectful funeral honours.
As the crowds begin to disperse, Antigone and Ismene arrive, breathless and anxious. They clearly know what has happened because they demand to be allowed to embrace their brothers’ bodies, and Antigone comments that yet again the long-running family curse has turned out to be true, and that it is not over yet. The soldiers are carrying out their orders, and Creon reinforces them; Antigone challenges him, reminding him that her brothers’ deaths are the results of the scheme which Creon had hatched, and that since he has now achieved his ulterior motive, he might at least allow the normal rites of mourning for the two men whose deaths are his responsibility. Ismene too demands to know why he is still acting so cruelly towards the dead. Creon expresses sympathy for their distress, but comments that he is a citizen of Thebes, and now its king, and that those who rebel against the city do not deserve either honours or mourning, so Polinices must remain unburied as a warning to others who might want to rebel. Antigone continues to berate him and he reminds her of the penalty for disobedience. She knows that it is death, but she says that she will defy him anyway: she and Ismene remind Creon that it is a cruel severity to disrespect the dead and he responds that it is a just severity to deal harshly with those who rebel, and then sweeps out, along with the remaining soldiers and citizens, leaving Antigone and Ismene alone.
Antigone now contemplates her predicament: is there any more that fate can heap on her family? It was bad enough that her brothers were forced to kill one another, and now a tyrant is pursuing that shame beyond death. Ismene joins in, telling Polinices that there is now no-one who can show his body the respect of a proper burial by sprinkling it with dust. Antigone replies that Jove’s anger will now all fall on her. She tells Ismene that under cover of darkness, they can come out and defy Creon’s edict by performing the funeral rites for Polinices. She counters Ismene’s inevitable reluctance by reminding her that she will never be able to rejoin their parents and brothers unless they do the right thing now. She tells the shades of the dead that she will bring Polinices safely to them, even though it will mean her own death.
Antigone leaves, and Ismene muses on her predicament: she asks the gods to look into her heart and judge whether she too loves her brothers. But surely her responsibility now is to her sister, and her duty is to prevent Antigone from destroying her own life. Hemon, Creon’s son, now joins her and asks her why she is still in such an awful place when all of Thebes is honouring Eteocles and Antigone is noticeably absent from the celebrations. Slowly, she explains to Hemon what Antigone intends to do, and what the consequences for her will be. Hemon is stunned, and Ismene impresses on him the cruelty of Creon in forbidding a proper burial for Polinices, and the courage of Antigone for standing up to him in her determination to bury her brother. It is only a fawning crowd of flatterers who will swarm around the throne of such a tyrant. Hemon tells her that she need not weep, because Jove will not harm her any more and that although Antigone is risking disaster, they can both appeal to the gods not to be offended at the righteous behaviour of an innocent woman, because in heaven, mercy is not a crime.
That night, far from the city, Polinices’s body is burning on a funeral pyre; Antigone and her maids dance solemnly round the pyre, throwing precious possessions and incense into the flames and singing their prayers that their lamentations might ensure that his soul can pass safely into everlasting peace: following the ritual, Antigone cuts off a lock of her own hair and throws it into the fire. Her maids then put out the flames with holy water and gather the ashes into an urn. Antigone wonders why Polinices can now rest in peace while she has to remain here on earth, able only to weep and face even more horrors. Her maids bring her the urn containing Polinices’s ashes and remind her that all earthly vanities end up in a pile of dust. Antigone takes the urn and weeps over it, saying that if Polinices’s remains cannot be placed with honour in the royal tomb, then her tears will have to suffice; she tells the maids to clear the site of the pyre and leave no trace of what has happened there.
Hemon arrives in a rush: he tells Antigone that she must flee – Creon’s edict will mean her death, and as soon as Polinices’s funeral becomes known, she will immediately become the suspect. Antigone replies that she fears nothing, and that death will bring an end to her sorrows. Hemon declares his love for her and his hope that their loyal people will support them in the future, but for now, the urn containing the ashes must be hidden: he asks her to let him place it in the family tomb so that all proof will be concealed. He tells her that there is hope, and that just as she has saved her brother, now she must save her beloved. He sees a troop of soldiers approaching, so Antigone gives him the urn and they leave, along with the maids, in different directions.
Adrastes now arrives at the head of a band of soldiers. He recognises the remains of the funeral pyre and tells his men that this was very obviously the place where Polinices has been cremated. Clearly guards have been bribed, an order has been disobeyed and the king has been defied. Now there must be more mourning because heaven is determined to destroy the last of Oedipus’s line. Is it his fault, he wonders, if vengeance still seeks to punish the crime of a guilty father? Or if it is a crime to show mercy once a law has been passed.
Later, at the Temple of Jove the Bringer of Concord in Thebes which has been wonderfully decorated to celebrate the new era of peace, young men and women sing and dance while priests offer a ritual sacrifice. Creon and Ismene, surrounded by Creon’s guards, greet the people of Thebes, telling them that the newly-established peace is a gift from the gods. Ismene recalls the many deaths which have brought so much sorrow, and a chorus of Theban maidens praise Jove for his mercy. Creon declares that this day will be a sacred day from now on and a reminder of the man who brought war to Thebes; he repeats the edict that Polinices’s body will remain unburied and promises that anyone disobeying this law will die a terrible death. Adrastes rushes in and asks Creon to withhold the promise and explains that during the night someone has cremated the corpse and placed the ashes in the royal tomb. Creon is astounded, but Adrastes urges him to revoke the edict and not to plunge Thebes into even greater mourning. Creon, however, is adamant: the punishment stands, even if the criminal is his own son. Adrastes tells him that it is indeed his own son, and Hemon is then led in under guard. He was apprehended trying to place the urn in the royal tomb.
Creon turns on Hemon, accusing him of betraying his father and his country just when his future was secured; he asks Hemon to explain his actions and Hemon says that what he did was a fine deed. Creon continues to berate him, telling him that he must face the penalty because Creon is his judge and no longer his father. The people plead with Creon to show mercy, but he silences them, telling them that to let a crime go unpunished will simply encourage more disobedience, and that if Hemon is guilty, then he must die.
At this critical moment, Antigone arrives and declares that she alone is the guilty one. Ismene and Hemon beg her not to do this, but she ignores them, saying that honour cannot be bought for any price: she was the one who gave the funeral honours to Polinices, and all Hemon has done is to try to save her by taking the urn from her. Creon announces her fate: she will be walled up in the foul tomb reserved for criminals and buried alive so that no shedding of her blood will bring more horror to the city.
Hemon and Ismene plead for mercy but Creon is adamant, so Hemon begs to be immured with Antigone; Creon refuses him, saying that an example must be made – then he leaves and the people disperse, leaving Antigone, Ismene, Hemon and the maids with a platoon of guards. Ismene and Hemon are still pleading with her, but Antigone tells them that she will now happily join her parents and her ancestors, but that one day the people of Thebes will weep for her fate.
High up in the mountains is the cave where criminals are entombed; a throne has been set up for the king and there is a temple of Mercury close by. Creon arrives and takes his seat on the throne and a crowd gathers, and to a mournful lament, Antigone is brought in, accompanied by her maids, all with their heads covered. The chorus comments that yet again the cloud of death envelops their city and the maids weep that even all their tears cannot console Antigone.
Antigone bids farewell to Thebes, to daylight and to the world. She asks if this is the marriage-bed which was intended for her, this living tomb. Hovering between life and death, she does not know whether to address the living or the dead. The maids and the gathered citizens express their sympathy and refer to the guilt of her father, Oedipus. She comments on the bitter wound that they have re-opened – her mother’s incestuous marriage and the implacable vengeance which pursues her now. Ismene now joins her and wants to be immured with her, she rushes to Creon and asks that she might share her sister’s punishment. Antigone asks Ismene what crime she has committed, and Ismene pleads with Creon that two sisters should not be parted in this way, and that if heaven is punishing Oedipus through his children, then she too must die so that the blood-line is destroyed for ever. Creon responds coldly that unhappiness is not the same thing as guilt, and when Ismene continues to plead with him, he orders the guards to drag her away. With Ismene gone, Antigone now pleads for a quick end to the proceedings. She is innocent, she insists, and heaven will call her accusers to account: she approaches the temple of Mercury and asks the god to guide her now, then she asks the cave to welcome her and give her rest from her torments. She asks the people of Thebes not to pity her, because this is the moment of her greatest happiness. She enters the cave and as the guards wall up the entrance, everyone present sings of yet more sorrow falling on Thebes.
Adrastes now enters in a hurry and tells Creon that Hemon is dead. He was being held prisoner according to Creon’s orders when Ismene forced her way through the guards and told him that Antigone’s punishment had been carried out. Hemon had snatched a weapon from one of his guards and killed two of them before he was cornered on an open balcony. With no other way of escape, he had thrown himself off it. Creon asks if Hemon is dead, and Adrastes replies that he doesn’t know because he came straight to Creon with the news.
Creon is horror-struck. He imagines himself embracing Hemon’s shattered body and seeing the boy’s mother reproach him for his cruelty. He imagines hearing Antigone’s dying lament and Ismene’s distraught sobbing and he weeps for the loss of his family and his throne, wondering how just one day can have brought so much sorrow. He realises that everything is his own fault, and not the will of the gods, and he rushes out, followed by his guards. As Adrastes ponders on the king’s distress, Hemon arrives; he did not die in the fall, and now he tells Adrastes that he knows of a way into Antigone’s tomb and that he intends to join her in death: he asks that if at some future time Thebes will become free from a tyrant’s rule, then his bones should be mixed with those of Antigone so that they can spend eternity together. Adrastes tries to dissuade him, but Hemon replies that anyone who tries to stop him will only harden his resolve – Creon gave him life, and now he is taking it from him, and he asks Adrastes to promise that if ever Creon weeps over his dead body, he should be reminded that his tears are meaningless compared with the blood that he has shed. He says that his shade will return to haunt Creon, and he leaves to join Antigone in the tomb. Adrastes is horrified.
In the tomb, Antigone, exhausted and sitting on a boulder, comments on the darkness and the coolness there, and how she too will soon be cold and dust. As she wonders how long she will survive, she hears Hemon’s voice and assumes that he has died before her and is now coming as a spirit to join her. But Hemon, very much still alive, finally reaches her and embraces her, telling her that she need weep no more now that he can die with her. Together they thank the gods that death now holds no fears for them, and when Antigone asks Hemon whether he really has come to die with her, he tells her that he has already tried to take his life, and that when he threw himself through the narrow cleft above them which is the only faint source of light in the cave, he fell heavily but landed on shrubs and small stones which broke his fall and only stunned him, and that it was hearing Antigone’s lament which brought him round. Gloomily, Antigone tells him that all they have to look forward to is slowly starving to death, but Hemon tells her that he has brought a dagger which means that they can decide when to die and not suffer a lingering torment. Antigone begs him to kill her straight away, but he tells her that they need a bit more time to share their love for one another.
Suddenly, they hear noises of blows on the rock, and then they see armed men with torches in the entrance and Hemon, thinking that his father has sent troops to take him from Antigone, prepares to kill himself with the dagger; Antigone stays his hand and Creon, accompanied by Adrastes, soldiers and a crowd of Thebans, bursts into the cave. He says that they are both forgiven and admits that he was blinded by power and a deluded desire for glory and that he lost his natural instincts. Since heaven has preserved them both and saved him from a lifetime of regrets, they can let this happy day crown their love: he says that they can leave this place of grief and enjoy a glorious day of happiness together. Hemon and Antigone are naturally overjoyed.
In a final scene, that evening, in the grounds of the royal palace, a chorus of young women set up a marriage altar and statues of Amor and Hymen; they cover everything with garlands of flowers and prepare two crowns of roses for Antigone and Hemon. A procession of young girls all dressed in white and bearing aromatic pine torches lead in Antigone and Hemon, followed by a huge group of Theban citizens all dancing and singing a marriage hymn. During all this festivity, Antigone and Hemon approach the altar, followed by Ismene, Creon and Adrastes; holding hands, they are crowned with the rose crowns, then they turn to face the jubilant crowd and comment on how quickly love can cause suffering to be forgotten and on how in happiness it is possible to recall even the darkest times with joy. The crowd call upon Juno, the goddess of marriage and pleasure, to bless their union, referring rather enthusiastically to their casta letto, their ‘chaste marriage bed’. Ismene, Creon and Adrastes add a final slightly bizarre observation that a single moment of happiness makes up for a hundred years of sorrow before the people sing a final chorus celebrating the end of grief and the beginning of a new era of peace.
Related OperaStory articles can be found on
The life and operas of Tommaso Traetta
The life and librettos of Marco Coltellini
The story of Ifigenia in Tauride, the previous collaboration between Traetta and Coltellini, in Vienna ten years before Antigona
What makes Traetta’s and Coltellini’s Antigona such a mould-breaking opera
Other operas based on the story of Antigone and other members of her ill-starred family, including those by Josef Mysliveček, Antonio Sacchini, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Igor Stravinsky, Carl Orff and Mikis Theodorakis
Other composers and librettists who served various Russian rulers at the Imperial court in St Petersburg …
… and many more aspects of operatic reforms over the centuries.
© Roger Witts 2013