From seeing the Brussels premiere of Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco’s production of Oedipe for La Fura dels Baus, also given under Leo Hussain’s baton, my abiding memory is of flashes of inspiration amongst an otherwise oppressive take on the work. Revisiting the production now I find it still a mixed affair. The dominant colour palette of muddy terracottas and muted reds perhaps unintentionally drew sculptor Marc Quinn’s 1991 cast head ‘Self’ utilising congealed blood as the main medium to mind in shaping the aesthetic of the massed choruses in particular. Despite Enescu taking care to ensure that the drama should have forward momentum, the direction of Act I (Oedipe’s birth and the prophecy of his downfall) remained slightly ponderous at times. Act II (the killing of Laios and the answering of the Sphinx’ riddle) had more such moments as the transfer between its two scenes was protracted, and the narrative lost focus in favour of barely camouflaged stage management activity. Acts III and IV (respectively, Oedipe learns that he fulfilled the prophecies and blinds himself before taking refuge in old age within a sacred grove with his daughter Antigone), being single scene acts, had a greater degree of cohesion about them.
In contrast to Mandeal in Edinburgh, Berlin and Cagliari or Pinchas Steinberg in Toulouse, who squared up to the dramatic impact of the music with visceral response, conductor Leo Hussain failed to inject enough energy to the score at key moments of the first two acts. In Brussels, his response to Enescu’s writing was rather lacking in power, drive and even brute force when required. His tendency remains one of trying to find a timbre that favours tidiness rather than leaving the score’s rough edges exposed, even if they could be exploited to heighten the dramatic action. As far I can tell Hussain has not touched any other Enescu score and this might have borne fruit in re-visiting Oedipe; I can only hope that the evident first night tentativeness quickly yields to a more gutsy approach for the remainder of the run. That said, the Royal Opera House orchestra responded with dedication to the task of realising Enescu’s intended vision. If anything was specifically lacking it amounted to a discernibly authentic Romanian timbre in the playing: witness the instances of folk music that flavour Act 1, the bitter-sweet emotional sensitivity that Romanians call dor – it infuses Act 3 particularly – or the specificity with which quarter-tones and various portamenti flavour the score unlike any other in the opera repertoire.
It should be noted that this production’s key creative team lacks input in every respect from a Romanian, whether amongst the singers, conductor, directors and associated staff, who might have advised in the necessity of these aspects to the production’s success. But, one reflects on the fact that the myth of Oedipus is a universal myth, so surely it should not matter entirely that it is realised by a multi-national cast? In theory I agree, but in practice Enescu presents the universal myth inescapably in a Romanian guise.
The cast, inevitably, is centred on the title role. Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter gave the part his all, both vocally and as an actor. Given that Oedipe ages considerably across Acts II, III and IV, Reuter manfully varied his voice according to the action, even if he was more at ease in the maturity of the final acts. The role might be demanding yet it is also extremely singable and for an artist in full command of his voice as Reuter is, it affords moments of great lyrical beauty. The heart-felt emotions Oedipe faces in trying to outrun his destiny were laid bare with gravitas and purpose, whether in his self-belief in vanquishing the Sphinx, the touching intimacy shared with his daughter Antigone, or the arrogance of a King responsible for his subjects suffering.
The large supporting cast includes Sophie Bevan’s Antigone, touching in purity of tone and feeling for Fleg’s libretto. John Tomlinson’s blind prophet Tiresias dominated his scenes more by force of stage presence rather than vocal delicacy, yet his portrayal was apt and compelling. In her single scene, the Sphinx of Marie-Nicole Lemieux revelled in the licence given for near hysteria, as she wailed and sobbed at Oedipe’s triumph in solving her riddle. Jette Parker Young Artists Samuel Dale Johnson and Lauren Fagan made solid contributions respectively as Thésée and the Theban Woman. Alan Oke is an insightful Shepherd, as is Stefan Kocan in his solid assumption of the Watchman over the Sphinx. However, Sarah Connolly’s Jocaste and Hubert Francis’s Laïos made a mis-matched pair, with Connolly rather linguistically indistinct particularly when compared to Reuter in their important exchanges. Similar linguistic issues impaired Claudia Huckle’s Mérope. Tonally, Samuel Youn’s Creon and In Sung Sim’s Phorbas proved pleasing if a touch lacking in distinctive character. A further pity is that Nicolas Courjal and the female chorus in particular wrestled to maintain pitch for much of their parts.
The production was greeted with warm applause, though around me some of the audience remained unconvinced of the opera’s worth. If they thought it Enescu’s masterpiece rather than a universal masterpiece, surely La Fura del Baus has to bear some responsibility in that judgement. However, despite significant flaws in production and performance, there is no denying that the Royal Opera House merits considerable praise for bringing Oedipe to another of the world’s great stages.
Oedipe is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 on 4 June 2016 at 7.15pm.