|Opening tableau. Photo: (c) Royal Opera House, by Clive Barda|
Is there anything else like it? It's difficult to select anything other than partial comparisons. Its sound worlds travel from Debussian sinuousness to something between Grecian declamation and Schoenbergian sprechstimme at the climax; its intensity recalls that of Szymanowski's Krol Roger, which Covent Garden brought us last year, but there's little of that sensuality about Oedipe, which conquers us with powerful oration rather than seducing. Its harmonies and melodic blends are rooted in the scarlet earth of Romanian folk music; and its orchestration includes such a variety of creations that ring, glimmer, glow, hiss, slide and roar, used with a ceaseless wealth of invention by Enescu, that I don't know how they got them all in the pit - still, special plaudits must go to the virtuoso wind players who within this vast canvas function almost as a chamber group. The conductor Leo Hussain, when I interviewed him about this piece the other week, remarked that the final ten minutes are not only his favourite in this opera, but in any opera ever written. I can see and hear why.
|Oedipus (Johan Reuter) meets the Sphinx (Marie-Nicole Lemieux). Photo: (c) Royal Opera House, by Clive Barda|
To say that these roles stretch their singers would be almost laughable, since I can't recall hearing any baritone role that can even begin to match that of Oedipe. The opera has over two and a half hours of music and it is only in the first scene (when Oedipe is a baby) that Johan Reuter is not on stage at the centre of the action. And in the second half not only must he carry off the climactic scene after Oedipus blinds himself, but also the final redemption through Antigone's filial love, his self-acceptance and the recognition of innocence through lack of intent. It's a magnificent performance and Reuter is supported by a luxury cast: Sarah Connolly a regal and humane Jocaste, crumbling in agony as her infant is torn from her arms; Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the Sphinx - homed in a crashed WWII plane - has to make vocal sounds that even Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire never thought of. Sophie Bevan is a pure and devoted Antigone, Oedipe's favourite daughter, whose love saves him as much as anything else; and Sir John Tomlinson has the greatest power, the most terrifying presence and the most audible French diction of them all, as the prophet Tirésias. Splendid roles, too, for Alan Oke as the Shepherd and Claudia Huckle as Mérope, to name but a few.
|Oedipus (Johan Reuter). Photo: (c) Royal Opera House, by Clive Barda|
The production, originally from La Monnaie in Brussels, is by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, artistic directors of the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus - they will be back in the autumn to create a new production of Norma for the ROH. The red sludge element is apparently inspired by the devastating spillage in Hungary in 2010 - representing fate, for who can assert the existence of free will against chemical contamination? Yet it's not overstated; there are spectacular visual results, but one never feels bashed over the head with a "concept". It's an organic part of the opera's philosophical thrust, one that in the end belongs as much Enescu and his librettist Edmond Fleg as to Sophocles. The Sphinx asks not her original riddle that traces a human's life from four legs to two to three; instead, Fleg has her demand, "Who or what is greater than destiny?" The answer remains the same: mankind. We must transcend our fate and - red sludge apart - we can.
So the billion-pound question is: why is this opera not performed more often? Well, it's huge; people don't know it, so it's a risk; you need a world-class cast like this one; and perhaps it's simply that with a world premiere in 1936, when the world was on its way to hell, it was doomed to have to wait twenty years for resuscitation. And then there was the Iron Curtain to contend with. Enescu's musical language is organic to its own land much in the way that Bartók's is organic to Hungary, but it's one that was not enhanced by wide familiarity beyond; besides, come the 1950s, the dominance of serialism was squeezing out many alternative compositional approaches, which then remained underappreciated for several decades. In Romania Enescu is more than a national hero (I can scarcely believe the stats here for yesterday's preview piece), but blowing his trumpet abroad has never been easy. Perhaps that was the red sludge of fate. Or perhaps he was ahead of his time. Perhaps his time is now.
Go and see this right away if you possibly can. Five more performances, ticket availability still quite good and prices not astronomical (you can get a very good seat for around £65 and top price is £85). All details and booking here.
|Oedipus (Johan Reuter) walks away into the light. Photo: (c) Royal Opera House, by Clive Barda|