Enescu’s Oedipe at the Royal Opera House: a neglected work worth revisiting

A new production of this little-heard Romanian piece shows that neglected doesn’t necessarily mean second-rate when it comes to opera. 

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In the opening visual sequence of Oedipe, the Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus has pulled off a startling coup de theatre. What first appears to be a projected image – an intricate terracotta frieze, busy with human life in all its forms, filling the full height and breadth of the Royal Opera House stage – is suddenly revealed as a tableau of living human figures. It’s a gorgeous piece of visual trickery, heightened by the audacity of its scale, but also something more. In this retelling of the Oedipus myth, the divide between history, sealed beneath layers of mud, and the lives lived above it, between Classical statues and their contemporary human counterparts, is porous. Tragedy bleeds down through the ages, staining each era red in its turn with death and dissent.

Oedipe is the only opera by Romania’s national composer George Enescu (1881-1956). The product of over 20 years’ labour, it distils Sophocles’ three Oedipus plays into a swift, four-act drama that’s part opera, part meditative oratorio. But unlike Stravinsky’s “opera-oratorio” Oedipus Rex, Enescu’s characters are fully-formed humans – more sympathetic but also less biddable than their tragic archetypes.

But it’s the music that makes the case for this little-heard work – ironic really, as the opera’s vast orchestral forces (including piano, harmonium, celesta, saxophone and musical saw) are largely responsible for its neglect. A rhapsodic score, rich in motivic interest, swirls in phrases that confound as often as they delight. Melodic dead-ends tease the ear, but so beguilingly under Leo Hussain’s precise baton that it doesn’t matter that musical journeys are often abortive or digressive. There are echoes of Wagner and Debussy here, but also Romanian folk-music and even Renaissance chant – all adding up to writing of filmic lushness.

Chafing against this musical excess and outpouring are visuals devised by designer Alfons Flores. Dimly but evocatively lit by Peter Van Praet, stratified architectural structures come into view, imposing order on spaces otherwise dominated by dust and a rich red-brown mud that gradually coats all the cast. Times shift fluidly between scenes, now set in Classical Greece, now under Axis occupation during World War II, now in the present-day. In the vision of directors Alex Olle and Valentina Carrasco of La Fura dels Baus, Oedipe becomes a luckless everyman, blundering wildly through history yet always trapped in his own tragic narrative cycle.

Some episodes emerge more clearly than others. Transforming the oppressive Sphinx (a  cameo at once gorgeous and grotesque from Marie-Nicole Lemieux) into a  Second World War fighter pilot, whose “wings” are those of her crashed bomber, works brilliantly, as does reimagining the Theban plague as a nuclear disaster, bright with hazard tape and smoky with burning bodies, but other scenes are less successful. The climactic parricide at the crossroads – a brutal, road-rage killing partially hidden in mist and backlighting – has curiously little of self-defence about it, undermining our hero’s subsequent claims of innocence, and the final scenes of Oedipe’s return to Thebes and his blinded vision of pastoral redemption lacks sufficient visual difference from the opening.

Musically, Oedipe is proof of the fire-power the Royal Opera has at its disposal, with serious names taking all but the very tiniest of parts. Enescu’s score is rich in basses and baritones, and here each one brings a distinct vocal colour to the mix, starting with the indefatigable Johan Reuter – massive through the opera’s almost continuous vocal demands, and marshalling enough voice through the taxing first three acts to deliver the exquisite final aria with its new, lyrical quality. His heroic intensity is balanced by Samuel Dale Johnson’s smoothly patrician Thesee (richly even and untroubled) and an exciting, youthful Phorbas from In Sung Sim. John Tomlinson brings craggy, grizzled intensity to the role of Tiresias, while Stefan Kocan makes tremendous impact in his cameo as a Watchman.

Sarah Connolly makes a fragrant, untouchable Jocasta, whose vocal lines unfold in unbroken arcs of melody, all legato seduction. We understand very well what drawn Oedipe to this glossy creature. Sophie Bevan’s Antigone, tonally richer than ever, is another highlight, a rare figure of light and hope among so many moral shades of grey. The Royal Opera House Chorus glue everything together as the cursed people of Thebes, their bolstered forces matching Hussain’s brass for power, and negotiating unison ensembles well from within  the tricky spaces and sightlines of Flores’s set.

Like last year’s Krol Roger, Oedipe is proof that neglected doesn’t necessarily mean second-rate when it comes to opera. An unknown piece by a little-known composer is a big risk, especially when it comes with such massive musical demands, but the Royal Opera have shown themselves willing to take it, to lead and educate their audiences rather than just satisfy commercial demand for endless Traviatas and Bohemes. Let’s hope it’s bravery that survives the imminent departure of the company’s artistic director Kasper Holten.