George Enescu’s sole opera Oedipe is generally acclaimed to be his greatest masterpiece. He originally had the idea for the work in 1910, and immediately started some musical sketches, even though a libretto had not yet been secured. This came (in French) from Edmond Fleg in 1913, but the orchestration was not completed until 1931 and the piece did not enjoy its premiere until 1936.
Across its four acts the piece relates Sophocles’ Oedipus myth, but its structure is quite unusual. Act III tells of Oedipus Rex, while Acts I and II play out the events from the past that in the original are only reported. Act IV then overlaps in plot with Oedipus at Colonus, although the psychological treatment of Oedipus’ final days diverges from its source.
For all of its brilliance, the work has been somewhat neglected, in Britain at least. When it premiered at the Royal Opera House last year, in a production from Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco that had started life in Brussels in 2011, it was the first time that the work had ever been fully staged in the United Kingdom. Concert performances prior to this had hardly been a regular occurrence, and so the opportunity to experience this one from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, was especially welcome. With the orchestra not confined to a pit it became possible to engage with all of the score’s details in an entirely new way.
The LPO delivered extremely textured and nuanced playing, and, with its sound able to breathe uninhibited, it provided new insights into how Enescu constructed the music and entire drama to make a series of points. For example, when Oedipe encounters Laïos at the crossroads, there is no extended altercation, but rather Oedipe moves in for the kill after one line is uttered, which suggests several things. First, it shows how Oedipe’s action derives from the state of mind he is in before Laïos has even appeared, as Enescu has just given him a soliloquy in which he reveals all of his fears. Second, the quickness of Oedipe’s action emphasises the notion of inevitability as it implies his lack of choice or free will in the matter.
The concert performance also brought other ideas into focus simply because, in the absence of staging and hence distractions, we could concentrate more upon them. For example, Oedipe’s answer to the Sphinx’ riddle is that mankind is greater than destiny. This initially seems ironic, given that Oedipe seems unable to overcome his, but because Enescu includes an Act IV, in which we learn how Oedipe is forgiven his ‘sins’, this may prove his answer to be correct. It could be argued that Oedipe simply takes on a different destiny as we hear of a new prophecy that he will die in a city that will consequently be blessed, but this only adds a further layer of complexity to the entire notion of fulfilling or defying fate.
The chorus, comprising the Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic and Romanian Radio Children’s Choir, provided strong and balanced singing that, when the occasion demanded, could also be immensely delicate. Just the right level of theatricality was introduced to the performance so that the stagecraft employed always served the music well. Sections of the choir sometimes sang from off stage so that an exquisite sound drifted through to the auditorium. Some of the members of the children’s choir played mini cymbals and other percussion instruments at the end of Act II, while the Sphinx was placed in a box above the audience. The amplification of Ildikó Komlósi’s voice here worked well as it gave a mystical, other-worldly quality to her sound.
The cast, which included Sir Willard White as Tirésias and Christopher Purves as Créon, was generally strong, although it took several principals time to warm up and adjust their sounds to suit the acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. The standout performance came from Paul Gay as Oedipe, whose bass-baritone seemed ideally suited to this most demanding of roles, and who delivered a performance of extreme psychological intensity. Marius Vlad Budoiu and Graham Clark fared well as Laïos and the Shepherd respectively, while Ruxandra Donose stood out as Jocaste, her strong mezzo-soprano bringing some rich hues to her vocal lines. Dame Felicity Palmer was a class act as Mérope, and Gabriela Iştoc revealed a sumptuous and accurate soprano as Antigone. In Sung Sim was an excellent Phorbas, having also played the role for the Royal Opera last year, while Boris Pinkhasovich shone in the small part of Thésée by virtue of his aesthetically pleasing baritone.