Œdipe returns home, 85 years later

In 1936, Œdipe premiered at the Opéra de Paris, Palais Garnier, with a dozen performances, and aroused an extraordinary interest in Romania, where it was radiocast. Neagu Djuvara was present in the audience, and confessed decades later that he hadn’t understood anything, but had realised that he was witnessing the birth of a masterpiece. Constantin Argetoianu was sniggering while listening to the radiocast, and Mihail Sebastian was disappointed that neither he, nor the French critics could explain precisely what had happened on the stage. And Enescu’s opera had to wait until 1958 in order to be presented in Bucharest.

After Wiener Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper Berlin (in 1997), the XXIst century audience discovers Enescu and his masterpiece at high speed, with new productions in very important opera houses. After La Monnaie in Bruxelles, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Royal Opera House in London, or the Opera in Amsterdam (2011, 2012, 2016, and 2018, with Alex Ollé directing – La Fura dels Baus), followed by Achim Freyer’s production for the Salzburg Festival (2019), now, when Enescu is celebrated for 140 years since his birth, Œdipe returns to Berlin and Paris. In less than two months, the two capitals hosted 12 performances and a preview, more than in a whole decade in Romania.

on a Thursday, 14 October, Opéra Bastille, live broadcast on medici.tv
George Enescu: Œdipe
libretto by Edmond Fleg
Directed by: Wajdi Mouawad, scenography: Emmanuel Clolus, costumes: Emmanuelle Thomas, lightning: Eric Champoux, video: Stéphane Pougnand
Christopher Maltman (Œdipe), Clive Bayley (Tirésias), Anne-Sophie Neher (Antigone), Anne Sofie von Otter (Mérope), Ekaterina Gubanova (Jocaste), Clémentine Margaine (the Sphinx), Vincent Ordonneau (the Shepherd), Laurent Naouri (the High Priest), Yann Beuron (Laïos), Brian Mulligan (Créon), Nicolas Cavallier (Phorbas/the watchman), Adrian Timpau (Thésée), Daniela Entcheva (a Theban woman)
Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine – Children chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (Gaël Darchen – chorus master)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (Ching-Lien Wu – chorus master)
Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher

After 85 years, Œdipe returns to Paris, under the sign of modernity, opening the season 2021-22 at the Opéra Bastille, with an iconoclast but accessible production, broadcast in high definition. And France triumphally reclaims a national masterpiece. Including this streaming, that will be broadcast again on Sunday 17th, and some other dates, on Mezzo TV channel. It is quite an event, as Salabert publishing house has exorbitant prices for Enescu’s opera; this is the reason why the EMI studio recording, from 1989, was nearly cancelled, and the TV broadcasts of Œdipe performances are prohibitively expensive, even for the biggest opera houses.

It would be simple to consider Wajdi Mouawad’s production as an ecological manifesto. It is true that the Thebans wear on their heads, as complicated or punk hairdos, plants that dry in the third act, when the city is haunted by the plague, the Corinthians show the marine equivalent, and the Athenian Thésée wears a dorsal fin. The metaphor of the Sfinx is a huge sewer pipe, and the   waste takes the shape of the monster. But Mouawad’s art goes beyond this, because the Canadian director of Lebanese origin follows in Andrei Șerban’s footsteps of antique theatre, as he is the author of several theatre productions with Sophocles’ and Euripides’ plays (including Oedipus Rex and The Trojan Women).

First of all, the staging in Paris tells the story very coherently, so that even a spectator who knows nothing about the myth, about theatre or opera understands it. The strong symbols are very suggestive, easily visible to everybody, not only to the connoisseurs. For example, I have never had the patience to look for the obscure deities in Edmond Fleg’s libretto, who are invoked at the birth of Laïos and Jocaste’s son. But, with a few minute pantomime, we meet a kind of arhi-archetype: the founding myth of Thebe, created by Cadmos, brother of Europe, seduced by Zeus who was transformed into a bull, then following the descendants down to Laïos. The sin of the king is the molestation of a child who commits suicide after the tragedy, and triggers the banning of procreation, with the punishment that the child will become parricide and incestuous. Critics do not usually agree to such theatrical additions to the opera, but in Paris, this explanation produces a tension stressed by horror, that set from the very beginning Œdipe’s innocence, and his rejection to being gods’ toy, defeating the destiny, being forgiven by Olympus and beatified as a guarantor of all victories. Exactly as the librettist and the composer wanted him. Therefore, we have one of the most  humane and touching mise en scènes of Enescu’s masterpiece. L’homme! l’homme! L’homme est plus fort que le Destin!

C’est Jocaste! l’épouse! l’épouse d’Oedipe! (Christopher Maltman, Ekaterina Gubanova)

Beyond the hairdos, the costumes created by Emmanuelle Thomas were timeless, giving the audience the freedom of placing them in any era, from an archaic antiquity, before the Hellenistic classicism, in close connection to nature, to a future world, of, if you prefer, an extraterrestrial civilisation. Emmanuel Clolus created a simple scenography, with grey walls that divided the stage according to each action and were the background for lines from the libretto. Eric Champoux and Stéphane Pougnand made the lights bind the scenography, the costumes and the movement on stage.

In a short film presented in the entr’acte, Wajdi Mouawad explained that Sophocles play premiered in a moment when Athens was hit by the plague and lost a third of its population, but the citizens were forced to go to the theatre. Collective catharsis was produced precisely by the representation of the Theban plague, and the guilty part were the politicians who had attracted gods’ wrath, as in Œdipe’s case. And thus, Enescu’s opera easily steps out of the freudian cliché and acquires a more profound signification. Se non è vero, è molto ben trovato, because, seen from this perspective, the Paris production becomes as contemporary as possible, in times of pandemic and political instability, even more obvious in Romania, where the covid wave gets dark records every day and the government fails after a censure motion. But Mouawad deserves to be believed, even for the informed meticulosity of making Œdipe lame, with his left leg dressed in a kind of splint, as in ancient Greek, the name of the character means “swollen foot”.

Suis-moi parmi les fleurs, les mousses et les lierres (Christopher Maltman – Œdipe)

I had already known Christopher Maltman from the radiocast of the performances in Salzburg and, even though he is vocally very good, I could not imagine him as Œdipe. At least from the reviews and photos of Fryer’s production, as Rocky Balboa boxing with the destiny, the character’s humaneness seemed simplified. In Paris, he had an endearing complexity. He was not as imposing as Johan Reuter in London, but his voice supported the part very well, swinging between a baritone high register and very steady bass low notes. As he had to be on stage and to sing for three whole acts, Maltman evenly distributed his voice, and gave up the explosions, by replacing them with strong accents in the Sphinx scene and in the end of the third act. Here, Mouawad had the inspiration of not using the image of blood running down the hero’s face after self-blinding, and metaphorically replaced it with glittery confetti, an inorganic material that contrasted with the life in the vegetal hairdos of those around him. And the difficult final scene, when the hero disappears in light, was simply solved, with Œdipe falling asleep in fetal position, in the middle of a large, illuminated water scene.

Je t’attendais. (Clémentine Margaine – La Sphinge)

The cast was at least impeccable. The stars were: Ekaterina Gubanova — Jocaste of vocal plenitude who made us easily forget that she was not physically adequate for the part of an unusually beautiful woman, Anne Sofie von Otter — luxury Mérope, maternal and still vocally brilliant, Laurent Naouri — so sound vocally, that the scenes of the High Priest were real vocal feasts. But especially Clémentine Margaine, frightening, in the footsteps of Marjana Lipovšek, or Marie-Nicole Lemieux, without any vibrato, just to keep her strange eroticism until the end, she transformed the Sphinx in an operatic creature even more terrible than Klytaemnestra, from Strauss’ Elektra. As for the rest, Anne-Sophie Neher was a captivating Antigone, and Vincent Ordonneau (the Shepherd), Yann Beuron (Laïos), Brian Mulligan (Créon), Nicolas Cavallier (Phorbas/the Watchman), Adrian Timpau (Thésée) — exceptional.

Ingo Metzmacher, at his second round of Œdipe, after the one in Salzburg, became an authority in Enescu’s opera, that he conducted as if it had been a regular title, from which he drew new, incredible meanings and nuances. He did not make any cuts in the score, he even moved the flautist on stage to play the Romanian folk parts, in order to accentuate them; not like in other productions, where these are usually cut. The subtle leitmotifs of the score were tracked and highlighted, and his reading put Enescu’s opera on the same level with its contemporary masterpieces, stressing its originality. The choruses were essential in this approach, with idiomatic diction and sophisticated colours.

A must, to be seen in the next broadcasts, on Mezzo,  October 17th to November 11th, 2021.