Monday 30 May 2016

Brought thrillingly to life: Enescu's Oedipe at Covent Garden

Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
Enescu Oedipe; Johan Reuter, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, dir: Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, cond: Leo Hussain; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 26 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A chance to reassess Enescu's important yet rarely performed opera, in a spectacular new production

Johan Reuter - Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
Johan Reuter - Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
It has been a long time coming, the Royal Opera's new production of George Enescu's Oedipe (seen Thursday 26 May 2016) represents a valuable opportunity to reassess Enescu's much admired yet rarely performed opera. Directed by Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco of La Fura dels Baus, and designed by Alfons Flores (sets) and Lluc Castells (costumes), the production was a co-production with the Monnaie in Brussels, and the Paris Opera. In London the opera starred Johan Reuter as Oedipe, Sarah Connolly as Jocaste and John Tomlinson as Tirésias with Nicolas Courjal, Alan Oke, Lauren Fagan, Samuel Youn, Hubert Francis, In Sung Sim, Claudia Huckle, Stefan Kocan, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Sophie Bevan and Samuel Dale Johnson, conducted by Leo Hussain.

Oedipe had a long gestation period, finally being premiered in Paris in the 1930s. Since then it has been an opera more admired than loved, and needing a baritone singer willing to champion the taxing title role. The opera works partly because Enescu's collaborator, librettist Edmond Fleg, created such an intelligently dramatic libretto, in four acts, based on Sophocles plays, Act One fills in the back story with Oedipe's birth and the fateful prophesy, Act Two takes the adult Oedipe from Corinth, where he grew up, to Thebes with the encounter with the Sphinx en route. Act Three is the plague in Thebes, ending with Oedipe's self-blinding, and Act Four is the ending at Colonnus.

Sarah Connolly - Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
Sarah Connolly - Enescu's Oedipephoto ROH/Clive Barda
Around the central character (rarely off stage in the last three acts), Enescu has created strongly etched smaller roles, each of which counts, with Oedipe's wife/mother Jocaste (Sarah Connolly), the blind seer Tirésias (John Tomlinson), the shepherd who plays such an important part in the story (Alan Oke), Créon, Jocaste's brother (Samuel Youn), Oedipe's real father Laios (Hubert Francis), Merope Queen of Corinth (Claudia Huckle), the watchman (Stefan Kocan), the Sphinx (Marie-Nicole Lemieux), Antigone, Oedipe's young daughter (Sophie Bevan), Thesée, King of Athens (Samuel Dale Johnson), plus a Theban woman (Lauren Fagan).

Enescu has given each act a particular character, with the first and last more static and oratorio like, whilst the middle two represent the real heart of the dynamic drama. Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco responded to this in striking fashion. For the opening scene we were presented with a huge frieze filling the entire proscenium, which magically came to life. The structure of the frieze was present in the other acts but in the middle two it was shrouded and the characters set in 20th century dress. With the final act the sense of the mythic returned and the characters reverted to the earth coloured historical costumes of the opening act.

This structure enabled the directors to explore the way the mythic elements interacted with the historical present in the story, without pushing the sense of 'relevance' too far. When Oedipe (Johan Reuter) explained to his foster mother Merope (Claudia Huckle) why he could not take part in the celebrations in Corinth because of the prophecy, he did so lying on a couch as if in analysis. And the Sphinx (Marie-Nicole Lemieux) was embedded in a huge World War 2 aircraft (modelled on an American Apache aircraft), and Thebes under the plague was a very 20th century city.

Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
Enescu's music is complex and multi-layered, this was definitely an opera you really needed to experience more than once. He uses a myriad of leitmotifs welded into a structure which uses a great deal of heterophony. In the middle two acts, the stress of the drama, with the plague, is reflected in the way Enescu pushes the tonality of the music to real extremes. But this is not an opera where you are bombarded fro start to finish, Enescu knew how to turn an expressive phrase and pare down the orchestration to a telling few instruments. A sense of Romanian folk influence was constantly present without the music ever becoming folkloric (much as you can say the same for Bartok's music).

The performance from Johan Reuter was supremely commanding. In an ideal world I would have preferred a singer with a more French baritone technique, but that is to cavil. Reuter made the declamatory vocal lines profoundly expressive and flexible, bringing a naturalness of utterance. It was a performance which developed in power as the opera progressed, each act introduced us to a different aspect of Oedipe, and Reuter knitted all these into a moving whole.

Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
Enescu's Oedipe - photo ROH/Clive Barda
As Jocaste, Sarah Connolly made a telling contribution ins what is a relatively small role. Looking immensely stylish in 1940s costumes in acts two and three, she brought a real anguished intensity to the scene when Jocaste realises just what has happened. All concerned made this scene one of the most intense in the opera as the drama, on slow burn, unfolded before our eyes with a consistent tightening of the screw. John Tomlinson's two scenes as Tirésias were vividly etched, and made thrilling theatre even if occasionally you wondered how close the sung vocal line came to what Enescu wrote.

Samuel Youn as Créon had an important role, cropping up at dramatic moments and he represented a sense of the opposing forces to Oedipe. The remaining characters each had their moment, Claudia Huckle as psycho-analyst Merope interviewing the troubled Oedipe, Stefan Kocan's finely sung, dramatic watchman in Act Two, the Shepherd (Alan Oke) who is so reluctant to speak in Act Three (another moment of telling drama). In Sung Sim too cropped up at key moments as Phorbas, a character who went from shepherd to Corinthian court messenger, and Nicolas Courjal brought great dignity and a lovely flexible bass-baritone role to the Theban High Priest.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux was terrific as the sphinx, in her World War 2 fighter plane. Taunting and malicious, even in defeat and death she brought a sense of glee as she clearly understood Oedipe's destiny. Sophie Bevan gave Antigone, a real sense of character even though we did not see the drama based on Sophocles Antigone. In the final act she made a fine foil to the now wise Oedipe. And here Samuel Dale Johnson was a highly sympathetic Thesée.

Leo Hussain marshaled his large forces with skill, keeping a sense of pace and drama through the whole piece. There were some moment of real sonic beauty, as well as a sense of the epic. I am not sure that the last act quite achieved the sense of the transfigurative numinous which Enescu clearly wanted, but I would have to experience more performances to be certain, and the fault may be Enescu's.

Oedipe is not an every day opera, and it is to the Royal Opera House's credit that this production brought the piece so thrillingly to life. Following on from their production of Szymanowski's King Roger

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