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Enescu, Oedipe (Second Opinion) : Soloists, Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse; Capitole Toulouse and Bordeaux choruses. Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg.  Théatre du Capitole de Toulouse. 10.10.2008 (ED)

Sylvie Brunet as Jocasta

Enescu’s only opera takes the Oedipus life story quite literally from the cradle to the grave, even if with a little artistic licence on the part of the librettist Edmond Fleg.

The work has had a patchy performance history to say the least. From its world premiere in 1936 at the Palais Garnier in Paris, which the composer described as being “like a dream” because no sooner had the work been presented then it disappeared almost from view, concert performances initially filled the void, including those in Belgium in 1955, and more recently in Barcelona during 2003. The British premiere of was given in concert at the 2002 Edinburgh International Festival.  Staged performances of the work have long been a mainstay in Bucharest, understandably, but internationally only a few provincial German houses mounted the work, albeit with significant cuts to the score, until the Götz Friedrich co-production between the Vienna State Opera and the Deutsche Oper Berlin appeared in 1996. The Teatro Lirico di Cagliari mounted a modern dress production by Graham Vick in 2005 as the Italian premiere. This new co-production by Nicolas Joel between Toulouse and the International Enescu Festival is further evidence that Enescu’s mature compositions continue to gain serious attention before the public.
There are unconfirmed rumours that the production might be seen at the Palais Garnier in Paris during the 2010-11 season, as Joel assumes control of Opéra de Paris in September 2009.

Oedipe Blinded

There is little doubt that Nicolas Joel’s enthusiasm for the opera has been a driving force behind the new production. It was therefore, a great concern to learn of his serious health problems in the run-up to the premiere, knowing that such a complex work to stage might suffer as a result. On the evidence of the opening night it seems perhaps that things were pared back to make the production reach the stage on schedule, and perhaps before it transfers to Bucharest next September further elaboration of the basic concept might take place. The direction of Act I (Oedipe’s birth and the prophecy of his downfall) had stuttering moments and Act II (the killing of Laios and the answering of the Sphinx’ riddle) had more of them as the transfer between scenes seemed a bit hesitant. Acts III and IV (respectively, Oedipe learns that he fulfilled the prophecies and blinds himself before taking refugein old age  within a sacred grove with his daughter Antigone), being both single scene acts had a greater degree of cohesion about them. The use of a single set, with slight variations, simplified things rather on stage as well. The massed crowd scenes of Acts I and III worked well, but the setting of Act II, scene 2 where Oedipe kills his father at a crossroads was ill at ease with the raked amphitheatre setting in which it found itself. The shepherd’s horrific observation that the King and his two companions were killed also failed to correspond with the action, with only Laios lying dead on stage. Some might also have wished for greater colour contrast between the grey-taupe set and the costumes, which tended to instil a sense of dry dustiness to the legend.

Any slightly negative points though were amply balanced by other factors in the production. Effective lighting, though sparingly applied, added emphasis at key moments: the Sphinx rising from her hell-red pit to have infinitely more menace than in the Cagliari production; or the brilliant blue present almost throughout the final Act. The crowd scenes were handled well: the sense of decay and desolation that pervades Act III and its contrast with the transformation of Oedipe in Act IV as he fearlessly follows the calling of Eumenides to the afterlife were effectively communicated.

The Sphinx

The real beneficiary of the production though was the music, and no doubt as a conductor himself, Joel realised that this is where the emphasis should be. There is after all enough musical detail in Enescu’s score which deserves its chance to be heard, and not become swamped by stage action. A huge orchestra including additional piano, harmonium, celesta, glockenspiel, alto saxophone -  and for purely dramatic effect also including a musical saw, wind machine, whip on drum, pistol shot and a nightingale’s song -  is employed, but all are used with a great deal of restraint. This is further augmented by mixed adult and children’s choruses to add specific textural nuances to the narrative. If extravagance was ever a good thing in opera, and surely it is here, then this and the consequent demands made must account of the lack of productions. Pinchas Steinberg marshalled the forces effectively, rarely letting the tension drop, though I felt there were aspects of transition that had yet to be effectively realised: from the sense of gloaming before the riddle of the Sphinx, through the interrogation itself, to the euphoric Theban celebrations afterwards. Cristian Mandeal (conductor of the Edinburgh, Cagliari and Berlin productions) brought greater instrumental drama and weight to Oedipe’s blinding in Act III, and certainly a greater understanding of the Romanian folk elements that pepper the score.

Oedipe is on stage more or less throughout Acts II, III and IV, and it is a demanding yet beautiful role to sing for an artist who has the necessary vocal resources for the task, which by and large Franck Ferrari does. There was a slight tendency towards inaccuracy, particularly in Act III when quarter and three-quarter tones are used to heighten the sense of anguish and self-torment that Oedipe feels. Ferrari's acting was purposeful throughout, if occasionally lacking somewhat in impetus. Much of the rest of the cast benefitted by being native French speakers. Vincent Le Texier portrayed Creon somewhat as an opportunist and Emiliano Gonzalez Toro was an effective shepherd, the one character who pieces together the action from birth predictions to witnessing their fulfilment. Arutjun Kotchinian provided a rich and menacing Tiresias, dominating as much by his stage presence as vocally. Amongst the female cast, Sylvie Brunet provided a strongly acted and vocally robust yet heart-moving Jocaste, charting a path from serenity at her new birth to inner-most terror before her suicide. Amel Brahim-Djelloul’s Antigone was a plaintive foil to Oedipe in the final Act. Marie-Nicole Lemieux would have stolen the evening for many though,  in her single scene as the Sphinx. Although restricted in movement by her deathly-black costume she used the full extent of her supple contralto to bring both haughtiness and harrowed agony in the moments of her death, as Oedipe confidently declares that Man in stronger than Destiny.

It is this message that makes the opera a truly universal one, its point highly necessary now in today’s troubled world, and thus making Enescu’s music more relevant to audiences than ever before.

Evan Dickerson

Youtube: Video about the production

Pictures © Théatre du Capitole de Toulouse

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