The Royal Opera House, Oedipe by George Enescu, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Leo Hussain, directed by Álex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, 23rd May 2016, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Igor Stravinsky’s Opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex is focused on the dénouement of Sophocles’ tragedy in plague stricken Thebes, when Oedipus realises that he is unwittingly guilty of parricide and incest and blinds himself with golden pins. In contrast, George Enescu (1881-1955), in his much longer opera Oedipe, incorporates the whole of Sophocles’ dissertation on the tyranny of fate, from Oedipus’s birth to his twenty year rule in Thebes, and then his exile and death, as related in Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus.
In the memorably staged first scene, Act one, of Royal Opera’s Oedipe, the birth of Oedipus to King Laìus and Queen Jocaste is heralded as a joyful occasion. But the subsequent story is ominously prefigured in a striking set with tiered galleries designed by Alfons Flores. And, in due course, Oedipus concludes that it would be better to have never been born, as the philosopher and pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer would subsequently maintain.
The ancient Greeks, G Lowes Dickinson observes in The Greek View of Life, had a markedly different conception of sin to that of Christendom. In Christian teaching (notably in Calvin’s version) sin is “an affection of the conscience which only ‘grace’ can expel”. But for the ancient Greeks, the taint of crime could be attributable to “misfortune from without”. Sophocles’ story of Oedipus, the hapless victim of predestination, provides the paradigm of this pagan conception of sin and redemption. Concerning the latter, Edmond Fleg indicatively concluded his libretto for Enescu’s tragédie lyrique by referring to Oedipus thus, “Happy is he whose soul is pure. Peace be upon him”.
Assiduous attendees of the Romanian Cultural Institute of London’s concerts dedicated to George Enescu will need no persuading that he was a masterful composer of highly original chamber music, such as his Quintet for piano, violins viola and cello (Op. 29) and his Trio for piano, violin and cello. Yet as Roderic Dunnett observes in “George Enescu, Musical Polymath” (a contribution to the very informative programme) Oedipe is an example of the category “neglected opera of “real stature”’. Indeed, between 1937 and 1956 this masterpiece, with its distinct echoes of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, was not performed at all. Yet paradoxically, there have been numerous performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex over the years and this despite the fact that Jean Cocteau’s French libretto was subsequently translated into Latin. Royal Opera deserves immense credit for undertaking this challenging and austere work, which demonstrates that Enescu could handle large musical forces. The full house for the first night of this production was immensely gratifying, and an obvious source of pride for the Romanian members of the audience. Serious music can evidently also be successful.
However, a few quibbles at this juncture. What exactly did the aeroplane in Act 2, scene 3, signify? Nobody in the audience seemed to know. And why was it necessary for members of the cast to wear contemporary suits or to don combat jackets and green berets and brandish Kalashnikovs? Likewise, the scene at the crossroads (Act 2, scene 2) when Oedipe murders his father, was visually confusing. And unlike the equivalent scene in Pasolini’s 1967 film Edipo Re, no cogent reason for the killing was provided. These caveats aside, this is an immensely stimulating production with some compelling singing, especially by Johan Reuter as Oedipe.