Œdipe and the BNO’s failure

In the last 12 months, I had the occasion to see three different stagings of Œdipe, which is a privilege compared to the regular spectator of Western Europe. Two were at the Bucharest National Opera (during Enescu Festival and during the conference Opera Europa) and the last one at The Covent Garden. Despite Romanian efforts to present Enescu’s unique opera in the best conditions possible, the differences between the performance in London and those in Bucharest is very big.

You will see that today, on June 4th, when BBC 3 (relayed by Radio România Muzical) will broadcast the penultimate Œdipe of the six to be presented at The Covent Garden. Which is the explanation?

If you ask a young musician, the answer will necessarily mention the extraordinary cast at The Royal Opera House. Excuses will follow: Romanian musicians have small salaries, their instruments are of poor quality (a Romanian conductor once told me that some basses in orchestras are just „cupboards with wires on them”). Still, the official speech, publicly assumed, is revanchist: Enescu cannot be played better than Romanians do it, because they are the only ones who understand him best. The statement is promptly used by the players in the Opera’s orchestra, when a “foreign” artist asks them to respect the score.

Last year, during Enescu Festival, the performance of Œdipe at the National Opera was accompanied by a scandal, that made the front page in the media. The players in BNO orchestra required that the performance would be broadcast on the radio or TV and asked for additional fees for this. Of course, it is known that the rights for media broadcasting must be paid, but in this case, the topic of the money was trying to hide some more profound problems. They made the conductor Leo Hussain ask for his name to be removed from the poster and decide not to appear at the curtain call, at the end of the performance. Seven months later, a new scandal, this time between the lyric artists of BNO, rallying members of the orchestra and of the chorus around the conductor Tiberiu Soare, and the artistic manager of the ballet company, Johan Kobborg, produced a real earthquake, that triggered the Minister of culture’s resignation. Starting from a hostile gesture against the Danish dancer and choreographer, the BNO employees then hastily turned the real motivations of the conflict to the eternal subject of money.

ONB ţine de Minister şi are menirea sfântă de a culturaliza contribuabilii
BNO is an institution of the Ministry of Culture and it has the sacred duty of raising the cultural level of tax payer

But what really happened during the rehearsals of that Œdipe in September 2015? Leo Hussain had already conducted the opera, at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, in Bruxelles, in 2011, and he was enthusiastic about collaborating with a Romanian orchestra:

We have a great cast, you know, and an orchestra that is used to playing the piece, which is also extraordinary for me, because I only used to play it with orchestras that do not know it at all, so to be able to learn something from the orchestra about the piece will be something very good to me.

– he told me in an interview he gave me a little while before starting the rehearsals in Bucharest.

An Œdipe with a bad ending. The first information on the record  about the difficulties in collaborating with BNO employees came from Valentina Carrasco, the director of the stagings in Bruxelles and London, who then came to Bucharest in November, to work on a new staging of Enescu’s opera. Here is a fragment of the interview she gave me the day after the premiere of the production at BNO:

Alexandru Pătrașcu:I don’t want to sound it like a tricky question, but in Romania the musicians are more accustomed to Enescu’s music, especially with Œdipe here, in this opera house. Which comes with pros and cons, I think. This is a good thing, but definitely it has some shortcomings, because their ears are also used to some traditional rendering of Œdipe, as they have done it for many years, so they might oppose the conductor, or the concept, or many other things. How was this experience, working with the Romanian musicians and talking to them about Œdipe? Do they accept your vision?

Valentina Carrasco: I haven’t been in contact with the orchestra so much, but with the chorus and the ensemble singers here. They just needed to be explained what I needed and I think they just got it from the very beginning. I think they understood it and it really got into them. Nobody came to tell me “this is like this”, and so on. Of course, I’m also very respectful with the music and they see that, too. They were immediately willing to do what I asked. It was funny you mentioned that because yesterday night, after the performance, a member of the orchestra, came to tell me “you know, I don’t think your vision of Œdipe is right”, and he started talking about Œdipe being a kind of Jesus Christ, a kind of man who becomes a god. “So, I think you should rethink the opera again”. And I said, “well, it’s a little too late, the premiere is already done”. But it was funny, because the first thing he said was “you know, I’ve been in the orchestra for 46 years and I’ve done all the productions of Œdipe and I have to tell you you are wrong.” He was a trombonist or something like that. And he was really exhorting me to change it now, after the premiere, this was the funny thing about it. And I know that with Leo Hussain, who is a very good conductor, who did it in Brussels and will do it next year, in London, there were some problems. Because the orchestra was really telling him how to do it. And he has done this opera twice already, it’s not like he never did it, and he has a very good understanding of this opera. And a very good approach. And they really were against him and made his life very, very difficult. But I think this is the case particularly with the orchestra here, it was not the case with the chorus, or the soloists, they were all very, very flexible. The chorus was very, very cooperative.

In London, the day before the premiere at The Royal Opera House, I opened this touchy subject. And here is the second part of the interview with the conductor Leo Hussain, not published two days ago.

Alexandru Pătrașcu: Well, but the last two experiences, from Bucharest, and this one, which you are about to conclude tomorrow, at the premiere, those are really close. Is there a way of the Romanian orchestra, which pretends to know the score best, as it is our national composer? And then here, this is a very competitive orchestra, which can handle basically any score…

Leo Hussain: My impression of it is the orchestra here have been incredibly open to the score and they really enjoyed the challenges presented to them by Œdipe. In Bucharest, my experience was slightly different, because, like you said, they feel very much it’s their music and they’re used to play it, they’ve played every year, every two years, it’s in the repertoire. And, in that sense, they’re not so keen to really work on it. For example, when I was there, I found a lot of mistakes in the parts that are still there and a brass who played completely wrong notes, which were just  simple mistakes in their parts, that I think had been there for years and years and years. So, having to correct some of those things was one of the things I had to do there. I mean it was not a particularly easy time for me and I don’t think it was an easy time for the theatre but maybe we will speak about that later.

A.P.: What happened in Bucharest? Everybody said you had some problems. I made an interview with Valentina Carrasco, and she told me that you had problems with the orchestra at the National Opera. For Valentina, I published it, not all the details, but the main things. What really happened?

L.H.: Well, I think it was clear for me when we started the rehearsals, that it was, and I guess still is in some kind of crisis, that it didn’t really function properly. And I don’t know whether it’s a lack of understanding, or it’s a lack of money, or a lack of tradition, or a lack of will, or a lack of leadership… But it seemed very clear to me there was no real structure there and the things weren’t clearly defined, and it was not a happy place. And I think the musicians felt under huge amount of pressure, from where I don’t know, I mean it’s difficult for me as an outsider to come in and talk about things related to money or payments, and I am sure that that has a huge amount to do with it. And it’s not really my place to comment on that, but, you know, when you get to the stage where… Well, I don’t think I’m a particular hostile person in the rehearsal room. And, like I said, here we had real fun discovering this music. I’m not used to really experience such hostility as I received from the orchestra there, when we should all try to work positively towards a result. Just as an example of the administration thing: as you know, in Œdipe there are four solo parts for each string player, in each section ‑ four first violins, four second violins, four violas, four cellos, and four bass solos. And they were pretty complex, and not simple to play, or to get together, and we had in each rehearsal a completely different team of people sitting in these solo positions. And, at a certain point, I said to the concert master: “When will we be able to rehearse this complicated section with the people who will play at the premiere?” And the answer was “I don’t know, maybe after the general rehearsal, or something”. This was a symptom of something which doesn’t function. And, you know, when I hear things like the orchestra or the artists of whatever departments taking on themselves to protest in various ways, I think, as an artist, that’s not really our place. I think our place is to do our job and our place is to respect the management that is there, regardless of what they are trying to do. Nobody goes to be manager of an Opera house in order to do bad work. At the same time, no manager of an Opera house has ever gone through a season without making a single mistake. It’s just human nature. And I think, as artist, our job really has to be separate from that. We have to not allow ourselves to get irritated and frustrated and involved in these things. And of course, like I said, it’s easy for me to say that, as I am not there every day, I’m not dependant on this house functioning for my salary. But, as an outsider, it strikes me that it seems that there’s a lack of order, and a lack of structure and a basic lack of respect from people in the theatre.

A.P.: Lack of respect towards whom?

L.H.: Towards colleagues, and towards public, and towards the work. I mean, again, to play a piece like Œdipe, however many times you played it in the last 20 years, this is not simple, and it’s not something we should take lightly, and it’s not something which can be done but just turning up and going through it. And I feel we owe the public the best we can do. Always. In every Tuesday evening performance of Così fan tutte in the smallest town in the middle of the smallest country in the world. That’s what we do and that’s why we have to do it. And we should never forget that in every performance we do there is someone in the audience who has never seen an opera before. And it’s our responsibility to give our best. To really show everybody there how amazing this art form is. And when we lose sight of that, I think it’s a very dangerous thing, and I only hope that in Bucharest, whatever the new regime is, people can focus a little better on the art and little less on the politics.

A.P.: This lack of professional behaviour is what you describe. Lack of professional behaviour from the artists side. This came out as frustration but, in later days, it came out as xenophobia, and chauvinism and shouts like “out with the foreigners from this country, we don’t like people who are earning a lot of money, we don’t want them, we want to do things the way we are doing them, in a bad way, we don’t care about the public”. Did you have any problems with that attitude? Did they offend you?

L.H.: Not that I would be comfortable to share it, to be honest. But what I would say is that I think that when we get frustrated about things, we tend to lash out at the easiest target. And of course, going back to the financial thing, it’s very, very easy to pick that as a target, when something is going wrong, or when I’m angry and frustrated about something. I do understand it, I can sympathise completely with the anger and the frustration. Not having been there since this last round, I don’t really feel it’s my place to comment on it. Because I think from my point of view, my experience there was an isolated incident, and I don’t have any personal context to tell a big story, and so I don’t feel I have the right to comment in a larger way on it.

Today, June 4th, BBC 3 (relayed by Radio România Muzical) will broadcast Œdipe from The Royal Opera House, with a dream cast.

On June 14th, the BNO will sing Œdipe in Hungary, at Miskolc Opera Festival. No cast is announced.