Œdipe in his prime

On that Monday, May 23rd 2016, 7:15 pm, at The Royal Opera House of Covent Garden
National premiere
George Enescu: Œdipe
libretto by Edmond Fleg
Directors: Àlex Ollé and Valetina Carrasco, set designer: Alfons Flores, costume designer: Lluc Castells, lighting designer: Peter van Praet
Conductor: Leo Hussain
Johan Reuter – Œdipe, John Tomlinson – Tirésias, Sophie Bevan – Antigone , Claudia Huckle – Mérope, Sarah Connolly – Jocaste, Marie-Nicole Lemieux – The Sphinx, Alan Oke – A Shepherd, Nicolas Courjal – The Theban High Priest, Hubert Francis – Laïos, Samuel Youn – Créon, In Sung Sim – Phorbas, Stefan Kocan – The Watcher, Samuel Dale Johnson – Thésée, Lauren Fagan – Theban Woman
Royal Opera Chorus, Concert master: Peter Manning
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

The last dream cast for Œdipe was in 1989, when EMI Pathé produced the CD that was to become the only recording that matters in the short discography of Enescu’s only opera. It seemed an unrepeatable moment, that only the phonographic industry could create. Miraculously, today, that moment repeated, at The Royal Opera House, in London. An opera theatre of such calibre spared nothing when it came to the casting.

It is clear that, when one sees Œdipe here, in London, in a kind of ventricle of the world’s operatic heart, the temptation of being superlative is irresistible. And even more if one has seen Enescu’s opera in several stagings, in Bucharest. It is enough to compare what cannot be compared: a minuscule part, of less than 10 minutes, that of the Watcher: in Bucharest, the part is played by Mihnea Lamatic; at the ROH, it belongs to Stefan Kocan.

The production created in 2011 by La Fura dels Baus (through the directors Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco) for the Opera La Monnaie, in Bruxelles, arrives in 2016 at The Royal Opera House and it gives the feeling that it was created especially for this stage. It is truly grandiose (a speciality of the Catalan company, that became famous by staging the opening of the Olympic Games in Barcelona, in 1992), but it is also alert and captivating, and it eventually becomes touching. The first act is static, with a huge scaffold separated in compartments, where the chorus plays the main part. It looks like the scenes on an ancient column, or like an enormous iconostasis, and it amplifies the impact of the music, of the antique chorus that comments on the dark prophecies of Œdipe’s destiny. Enescu and Fleg intended to present a complete restoration of Oedipus myth, covered in three plays written by Aeschylus and Sophocles – therefore, the opera gets to become an epic, with an action spanning decades. Ollé and Carrasco extend this travel in time to a historical scale, because, after a first act placed in Antiquity, the young Œdipe arrives in Freud’s time and confesses himself to Mérope presented as a psychoanalyst. The historical context after the defeat of the Sphinx seems to draw the line between two worlds, one of an inter-war society, to be soon replaced by a modern totalitarianism, represented by the plague that hits Thebes, or by the coup d’Etat of Créon. Oedipe’s exile takes place simultaneously with Thebes’ historic regression: the Theban delegates, led by the same Créon, are dressed again in antique costumes. This political contextualisation, where the Sphinx becomes a terrifying man-machine monster, a German attack aircraft (Stuka), stresses the sombre part of the myth and, not at all by chance, it confirms Andrei Șerban’s vision from his staging at Bucharest National Opera, in 1995. As for the hero’s departing in the light, at the end of the opera, this happens literally, in a special effect impossible to put in words, with an extraordinary illustrative force.

This was also Leo Hussain’s debut at the Royal Opera House in London and it was a triumph, directing an exemplary orchestra. There were many moments when the music seemed to come from another score than the one we are used to in Bucharest, even though it is the same manuscript, which is the photocopy of a photocopy, because this opera still lacks a critical edition of the score, and the fault belongs to the entire musical world in Romania, who loves Enescu only with words and never with actions. Orchestrally speaking, it was a completely different world, even if we compare it to Silvestri’s recording, from 1958. Today, Enescu seemed to be another composer, high above the official Romanian versions. Let’s hope this will be reconfirmed in Bucharest, in 2017, when Œdipe’s score goes to the instruments of London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. In the first act there were some minor desynchronisations between the voices of the chorus, but, once the stage fright of the first night passed, the nuances, the vocal images and the professionalism of the ensemble at the Covent Garden slowly equalled the performance of the orchestra.

Johan Reuter was fantastic. He was an Œdipe as great as the myth, a super hero from Wagner’s Walhalla, but one who kept returning every time to the human dimension of the fate’s victim, tormented by doubts and helpless rebellions, denials, angers, depression, an Œdipe who eventually accepts the fact that man is just a toy in destiny’s hands, nothing else but a game of gods. A final acceptance like an epiphany bathing in white light.

The rest of the cast was a dream. An ideally complex Tirésias, mixing the wisdom of Pimen, in Boris Godunov, and the implacable speech of the Grand Inquisitor, in a character that dramatically surpasses both of them, a prophet beyond mysticism, a character from the classical theatre of Ancient Greece, that only an artist like Sir John Tomlinson can create. Then Jocaste – Sarah Connolly – royal stature both in music and drama; after the performance, the mezzo-soprano told me she had been obsessed with this part for months. For once, since Marjana Lipovšek (1989, EMI; 2006, Vienna), I had the undreamt of occasion to listen to an ideal Sphinx: Marie-Nicole Lemieux, at the same time scary, strange and erotic, so far from the Romanian Azucenas who have simply hurt this character in the last decades. Sophie Bevan – an engaging Antigone, Samuel Youn – a Créon who terrified by his complexity, not by his sheer meanness, In Sung Sim – a vocally sumptuous Phorbas.

This was the London premiere of Œdipe. It was royal. And it celebrated 80 years since Enescu’s opera exists: let’s be honest, it is a young and vigorous opera if we compare it to the venerable Il barbiere. And it was followed by a memorable cocktail, with Kasper Holten up on a table and thanking each and every one, including the Romanian Cultural Institute in London, for an exemplary involvement in this event. All this in an evening when the Opera showed all its splendour and force, through Enescu’s music.

Photo Gallery (© The Royal Opera House/Clive Barda)