A rare chance to hear a fascinating opera
Like many inquisitive record-collectors, my first encounter with Enescu’s opera Oedipe came in the late 1980s with EMI France’s recording of the work under Lawrence Foster, an American conductor with Romanian ancestry. It was cast from strength: typical of that A&R genius Alain Lanceron’s ability to match voice and character, but also a testament to his skill at persuading singers of the calibre of José van Dam, Gino Quilico, Barbara Hendricks, Brigitte Fassbaender, John Aler and Gabriel Bacquier, among others, to learn roles they almost certainly would never get to perform on stage. A recording from Vienna, with Michael Gielen conducting, followed from Naxos with Monte Pedersen in the title-role; another strong reading that gained from being taken from live performances. I’ve always longed to see the work staged, even though it presents considerable challenges to the stage director: the long sections of orchestra-only music somehow need to be filled, and it must be quite a temptation to indulge in unnecessary stage-craft. It was a temptation that Bucharest’s director Anda Tabacaru Hogea did not entirely resist. Her approach was very choreographic, creating impressive stage pictures with the substantial cast, and grossly over-indulging in video projection. (Most of the last act was played through a scrim onto which clouds were projected: the problem was that the video only seemed to last about three minutes, after which the clouds went into reverse until the loop finished and they started all over again – very distracting, and not overly-clear why it was happening!)
Musically, though, it was a great success, even given the preponderance of lower voices (a lot of baritone and bass roles). The young Romanian conductor Tiberiu Soare – a talent we’ll surely be hearing more from very soon – led a performance of fierce conviction, lavishing huge amounts of energy on his large orchestra and fabulous chorus. One of the glories of the piece is the choral writing; another is the chamber-music textures of the orchestral writing, writing that draws out a quite magical sound-world, and Enescu's musical language is harmonically pretty complex. There are constant reminders of Szymanowski, though without his slightly epicene musical personality, and rather bizarrely I was also reminded of Bax in the opera’s final apotheosis (maybe not so strange for a work premiered in 1936). But Enescu is very much his own man, conjuring up a lush orchestral world that always stays just within the bounds of tonality.
Oedipe, which was written to a French libretto by Edmond Fleg, is unfolded over four acts – the story, familiar from Sophocles and in the many Oedipus settings (like Stravinsky’s) fills the central two acts. The First Act recounts the early story of Oedipus, his birth, the various warnings from the seers, and his rescue from a certain (and intended) death, having been abandoned as a baby on a hillside. The last act, which takes place some time after the horrific events that were predicted by Tiresias, finds Oedipus wandering with Antigone – it's an episode that finally brings peace and – in that ghastly psychobabble word – "closure".
As Oedipus, Ştefan Ignat was on terrific form; it's a ferocious sing and he carried it manfully. Oana Andra was a strong Jocasta. Ecaterina Ţăranu, looking like Tina Turner in one of the Mad Max movies, was a fabulous Sphinx. There really wasn't a weak link in the cast, though I question the necessity for a Romanian cast to sing the work in French when a perfectly good Romanian translation exists and, frankly, you could make out about one word in ten if you were lucky. Go for communication rather than authenticity any day, IMHO!
Oedipe is now in the National Opera's 2011-12 repertoire so if you fancy something unusual in a city full of fascinating treasures, and where eating and drinking costs a fraction of Western European prices, hop on the next flight (BA, Tarom, EasyJet and Whizz all fly there), and discover Enescu's music for yourself. You'll be very pleasantly surprised!
James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. After four years of co-presenting BBC Radio 3's weekday morning programme "Classical Collection" has moved to Sunday mornings, with Rob Cowan his fellow presenter; he also hosts some Saturday afternoon shows. His blogs will explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.