Enescu’s Oedipe

27 May

Enescu’s Oedipe was written between 1910 and 1936.  It was apparently successful at its first performance but got rather forgotten following the second world war.  The ROH finally got round to it on 23rd May and I was there.  It wasn’t billed as the UK premiere but i certainly can’t recall a staged production here.

The piece strikes me as typical of operas by composers who only wrote one, or possibly two, pieces in the genre – Genoveva, Doktor Faust, King Roger spring to mind – where (a) the musical interest is greater than the dramatic and (b) you have to be interested that sort of musical idiom if you’re going to enjoy it.

Enescu has taken the Oedipus legend, set slimmed down versions of the two Sophocles plays and preceded them with scenes depicting Oedipus’s birth, he decision to return to Thebes, the murder of Laius and the encounter with the sphinx.  It creates a portrait of Oedipus himself with meaty roles for the people he encounters in each scene and one or two very effective scenes: that with the sphinx struck me as particularly fine, as were the last two scenes.  He creates superb atmosphere for the scenes: the opening of the scene for Laius’s murder and that for the sphinx were the ones which had me sitting up.

The idiom owes a lot to Debussy, Chausson, even Sibelius.  It’s perfectly pleasant to listen to and you admire the very vivid, imaginative orchestration and, if this is a period of music that you respond to, you will react like stout Cortez.

You’ll have guessed that I didn’t.  I admired in a rather distant way, but felt no urge to rush to buy a CD.  I missed any sense of dramatic impetus; I missed memorable vocal lines or ones which had me really listening; it feels leisurely – the opening seems to go on for ever and I started wondering whether I would stay for the second half.  I’m glad I did because it gets better even if it never quite makes you feel that Enescu was comfortable with the form.  I’m very glad that I saw an interesting, worthwhile opera but I could happily wait another twenty years before seeing it again.

This was in spite of a really outstanding performance.  The cast must be as good as you can get.  Johann Reuter was, predictably, an intense, clearly sung and very convincing Oedipe, getting almost Lear-like sense of development to the character and aging superbly.  It’s a huge role and he paced it with assurance.

Surrounding him were John Tomlinson as Teiresias, clear, angry and loud; Sarah Connolly who made the most of a relatively small role as Jocasta; Marie-Nicole Lemieux brilliant as the sphinx; Alan Oke as the Shepherd; Samuel Youn as Creon and Stefan Kocan, who did his scene as the Watchman with great authority.  This was great casting: a marvellous ensemble put together with great care.

Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, together with Alfons Flores, the designer, have created a masterpiece of a production: from the opening frieze-like coup to the final shower of silver water as Oedipus died, it was full of memorable scenes and images: the sphinx as a plane with propeller whirring, the shepherds as road workers.  He managed an outstanding response to the piece which looked beautiful and seemed at one with it.  I couldn’t fault it.

I don’t know the piece enough to comment about Leo Hussain’s conducting.  I thought it was authoritative and clear without making a compelling case for the work as anything other than an occasional visitor.  The orchestra and huge chorus seemed outstanding to me – again, not obviously putting a foot wrong.

Oedipe is never going be to a repertory piece but it’s good enough to be done every fifteen years or so and anyone curious about forgotten operas should hurry to this truly superb performance of it.

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