Sunday 24 September 2017

Orchestra to the fore: Enescu's Oedipe from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

George Enescus's Oedipe - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Paul Gay at the Royal Festival Hall (Photo Allen Max)
George Enescus's Oedipe - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Paul Gay at the Royal Festival Hall (Photo Allen Max)
Enescu Oedipe; Paul Gay, Willard White, Christopher Purves, Graham Clark, Ruxandra Donose, Ildiko Komlosi, Felicity Palmer, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 24 2017 Star rating: 5.0
A stunning performance of Enescu's masterpiece which put the orchestra at the centre, without neglecting strong vocal contributions

George Enescu's only opera Oedipe (premiered in Paris in 1936) seems to be slowly making its way into the British operatic consciousness. The piece's UK premiere was in 2002 (in concert at the Edinburgh Festival), with the first UK staging coming last year at Covent Garden (see my review). Now the work has popped up again, in concert, at the Royal Festival Hall on 23 September 2017 as part of the Belief and Beyond Belief season. Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra with two Romanian choirs, the Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic and Romanian Radio Children's Choir. Paul Gay was Oedipe (a role he sang with the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski's baton in Bucharest earlier this month) with Willard White as Tiresias, Christopher Purves as Creon, Graham Clark as the Shepherd, Mischa Schelomianski as the High Priest, In Sung Sim as Phorbas, Maxim Mikhailov as the Watchman, Boris Pinkhasovich as Thesee, Marius Vlad Budoiu as Laios, Ruxandra Donose as Jocaste, Ildiko Komlosi as The Sphinx, Gabriela Istoc as Antigone and Felicity Palmer as Merope.

Enescu's opera, with a French libretto by Edmund Fleg, covers the whole of Oedipus' life. The first two acts are largely Fleg's invention, but the later parts of the opera follow Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus. The result is that the role of Oedipe is by far the biggest one, the mature character appears at the beginning of Act Two and remains the focus for the rest of the opera. The remaining characters come and go, providing a series of strongly etched cameos and character sketches, and essentially the story is told in a series of duets and interactions between Oedipe and the others.

What was noticeable about this performance was the sheer orchestral demands which Enescu makes. There was a huge orchestra lots of extra woodwind and brass, including alto flute, cor anglais, bass and E flat clarinets, saxophone, contra bassoon, and D trumpet, and there was a bass trombone, euphonium and two tubas, not to mention the extra timpani, percussion, two celestes, harmonium and piano, well over 100 players in all. And there was quite a lot of coming and going too, as Enescu uses quite a lot of off stage instruments too (and off-stage chorus), all beautifully realised here.

With the opera performed complete (it is often cut in the theatre), I was very much struck by its relationship to Richard Strauss's Salome, both pieces can be described as orchestral tone poems with voices. It is the orchestra which, for much of the time, is the dominant voice in the piece. Not because its sheer size give us loudness, quite the opposite as Enescu rarely uses all his instruments at once instead using a vast array of colours from his palette, but because there is so much for the orchestra. For much of the opera, the plot proceeds at a relatively leisurely pace with plenty of orchestral interludes and commentary. It is the orchestra which fills in the gaps, and gives us a richly coloured emotional background to the story unfolding before us.

George Enescus's Oedipe - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Paul Gay, Dame Felicity Palmer at the Royal Festival Hall (Photo Allen Max)
George Enescus's Oedipe - London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Paul Gay, Dame Felicity Palmer at the Royal Festival Hall (Photo Allen Max)
Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) were on terrific form, and it would be a shame if the performance was not captured for the LPO's record label. Enescu's orchestral writing is very distinctive, using a complex web of colours and sounds, and Jurowski really brought out the stunning detail of the score without losing the dramatic impetus. This is a long work (around two hours of music), yet Jurowski ensured that we had a dramatic pacing. But it was never headlong, and we could wonder at the sheer range of colours and textures produced by the orchestra. Often, you would be listening to a passage and wondering quite what the combination of instruments was. Bringing the piece out of the opera house and onto the concert platform seemed, on this showing, a huge gain as it enable us to both see and hear the brilliance of the orchestral writing and playing.

Dominating the vocal contributions was the Oedipe of Paul Gay, a performance which reflected the multi-faceted nature of the presentation of the character. So Gay developed from the restless and impulsive Oedipe in Act Two, troubled by oracles and keen to leave home, through the severe and mistrustful ruler of Act Three, where he was quick to distrust motives in Christopher Purves' Creon and slow to realise his own role in the tragedy, to finally the great final solo. This latter comes at the end of a long evening, and Gay was magnificent in the way he paced himself, rendering Oedipe's final words with profound humanity.

Amongst the other cast, there were three notable performances from veteran singers all over 70 yet making remarkable contributions to the drama. Willard White's Tiresias, the blind seer, was a wonderfully three dimensional creation, all-knowing yet testy and out of sorts with fallible humanity, a striking and well realised performance. Felicity Palmer made a strong contribution as Oedipe's foster mother Merope, troubled by both his restlessness and the worrying oracles. And Graham Clark (a singer whom I first saw in Scotland in the late 1970s) was a really characterful Shepherd, making a small contribution in the early part of the opera, yet really adding to the drama in Act Three.

Whilst there are dramatic moments in Act Two, it is in Act Three when Oedipe learns of his real history that the operatic drama really takes off. Here the scenes involving Gay's Oedipe with Tiresias (Willard White), the Shepherd (Graham Clark) and Phorbas (In Sun Sim) fairly crackled.

Jocaste is a relatively small role, but Ruxandra Donose made her contribution count, particularly in Act Three when Jocaste realises what has happened. Yet again Enescu and Flag's eye for the drama is not obvious and Joscaste's final scene takes place off stage and her suicide is reported by her women (striking step-out roles for some of the singers from the choir). Christopher Purves made a real character of Creon, despite the relatively small amount of material to work with, and suggested the character's deviousness and potential for trouble.

Ildiko Komlosi was stunning as the Sphinx, amplified to give an otherworldliness to the sound and accompanied by harmonium, this was a different aural world and Komlosi really brought that over. The final laughter, when it is clear that the Sphinx knows Oedipe's real tragedy, was brilliant. Gabriela Istoc was very touching as Antigone, providing a wonderful foil for Gay's Oedipe in the final scenes. And Boris Pinkhasovich made a noble Thesee, a small but important role.

Other parts were well cast. Mischa Schelomianski was a noble High Priest, whilst Maxim Mikhailov's Watchman took a little time to develop in his potent scene. Marius Vlad Budoiu made his mark in the small role of Laios, Oedipe's foster father.

The Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic made a series of strong contributions, both on-stage and off-stage as well as providing step-out roles. The choir sang with impressive commitment and focus, really blending with the orchestral web of sound to create something special.

This was simply a concert performance, with such a full platform it could not help but be so. But the individual cast members brought a strong sense of drama to their performance, interacting and creating characters, so that Willard White's Tiresias was full projected from the moment he walked on stage. The entrances and exits were well handled, we never had a row of singers waiting to do something. And Chahine Yavroyan provided a lighting plot, mainly lighting the organ case, which subtly added to the piece without drawing attention to itself.

Of course, all was not quite perfect. Some of the sung French was a bit variable, so that one did need the surtitles, but having a French-speaking singer in the title role made a big difference here. And there were inevitably occasional balance issues with such a big orchestra, with a couple of moments in the closing scenes when Gay's bass-baritone did not project ideally over the orchestra. But these are small quibbles in the face of such a strong and involving performance. What really counted was the way the Jurowski managed to weave the various elements into a strong whole, so that the rather bitty opening act with its long orchestral passages and short celebratory vocal contributions, developed real momentum and the slow burn nature of the piece was respected. This was a performance which gripped from the outset, but which took its time and really carried you with it.

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