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Oedipe, Op. 23 - Tragédie lyrique en 4 actes et 6 tableaux (1936)
George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Monte Pederson (bass-baritone) - Oedipe; Egils Silins (bass) - Tirésias; Davide Damiani (baritone) - Créon; Michael Roider (tenor) - Le berger (The Shepherd); Goran Simić (bass) - Le grand prêtre (The High Priest); Peter Köves (bass) - Phorbas; Walter Fink (bass) - Le veilleur (The Watchman); Yu Chen (baritone) - Thésée; Josef Hopferwieser (tenor) - Laïos; Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo) - Jocaste/La Sphinge (The Sphinx); Ruxandra Donose (soprano) - Antigone; Mihaela Ungureanu (mezzo) - Mérope
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera, Vienna Boys Choir
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Stage Orchestra of the Austrian Federal Theatres/Michael Gielen
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 29 May 1997. DDD
NAXOS 8.660163-64 [63:53 + 64:33]
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The published oeuvre of Romanian George Enescu is not particularly large. He indulged in many other activities besides composing: conductor, pianist and violin virtuoso as well as an important teacher with Arthur Grumiaux, Ida Haendel and of course Yehudi Menuhin among his pupils. He seems to have had a fabulous musical memory and composed a lot that was never written down but kept in his head.

Of all his works the opera Oedipe, based on Sophocles' tragedy, was the one closest to his heart. It was premiered in Paris in 1936, to great acclaim, but never got a foothold in the repertoire. Not until after his death in 1955 was it revived by French Radio and later played in Bucharest in a Romanian translation. Although it is held in high esteem by cognoscenti it is not performed all that often. This recording is a co-production between Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Vienna State Opera and was set down at its first night in Vienna.

It is a fascinating work in many respects. Peter Blaha, Chief Dramaturg of the Vienna State Opera, says in his notes to this issue that Schönberg and Stravinsky are the "ancestors of modern music". Traces of them can be found in practically all schools of twentieth century music. There are however some "outsiders" and one of them is Enescu. In one way this score is a kaleidoscope of influences from many directions: Janáček, Alban Berg and even Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande) for example. In the main though his tonal language is highly individual. He is constantly inventive in his search for specific sounds for each situation. His use of the wind-machine in act 2 scene 2 is just one instance. Time and again one marvels at the different atmospheres he creates. The prelude is powerful, dark and charged with foreboding. The beginning of the second act is hauntingly beautiful. The fourth act starts with light orchestral colours out of which emerges the chorus of praying Athenians, a scene imbued with sacred feeling. The choral writing is generally very imaginative, not least the tragic opening of act 3 with the people of Thebes lamenting their fate. Beside Oedipus himself the chorus in its different disguises is the main protagonist, which differs from Sophocles' original by telling chronologically the story of the ill-fated Oedipus from the cradle to the grave. In Sophocles the past is only related in narrative. Whether this was the idea of Enescu himself or Edmond Fleg, his librettist, I don't know but it certainly heightens the temperature.

It is in the two central acts that the main dramatic events occur. This involves plenty of action on stage, resulting in a lot of clomping feet, props being turned over and a lot of other business, which can be frustrating to hear without knowing exactly what happens. Since there is no libretto included, just a detailed synopsis, one can't always find clues. At climaxes there is also quite a lot of roaring and shrieking from the singers and the chorus. I can't suppress a feeling that it is a bit overdone. This is the downside of live recordings and one has to take the good with the bad. In a studio one often misses the feeling of a real event. Still for repeated listening I often prefer a more antiseptic atmosphere to too much larger-than-life histrionics.

As far as I can tell, conductor Michael Gielen, who is well versed in 20th century music and not least 20th century opera, leads a well-paced performance where the dramatic outbursts, of which there are many, are tremendously telling. No half-measures here! On the other hand he conducts the more lyrical parts with great sensitivity and the beauty of the string-writing receives an extra sheen through the silken Viennese bows. It has also to be said that this opera doesn't offer much easy listening; for long stretches it is almost unbearably tough and intense, though never less than deeply fascinating.

There is a strong cast of singers in the main roles and head and shoulders above the rest is of course Monte Pederson as the eponymous hero - or is he an anti-hero? His rich bass-baritone is a pliable instrument to express all the conflicting feelings of Oedipus. His stage presence seems all-embracing, something that is confirmed by several photos in the booklet. The most touching scene is probably the end of act 3 when he appears to some frightening orchestral chords followed by the shrieks of the people at the sight of Oedipus with his eyes torn out. In this situation he is no longer able to sing - he speaks his lines with half-choked distorted voice, against a bleak orchestral backdrop with ominous timpani. The more desperate and broken he becomes the more Bergian the accompaniment. Oedipus is a gigantic role - he appears in every scene, except the short first act, where he has just been born - and it speaks a lot for Monte Pederson's stamina that he doesn't sound too worn even at the end, having violated his vocal cords for almost two hours. Otherwise Pederson is very little recorded so this set is a fitting tribute to his memory - he died of cancer in 2001. There is a preponderance of low voices in the rest of the cast too: four basses and two baritones plus two mezzo-sopranos are balanced against two tenors and one soprano, who none of them have very much to sing. Marjana Lipovšek, doubling as Jocaste and The Sphinx, makes a strong impression and, especially as the latter, sings with an almost otherworldly caressing tone. Ruxandra Donose as Antigone, appearing at the end of the opera, also sings well. Possibly the best singing per se The Watchman in act 2 scene 3 as delivered by Walter Fink. Fink has one of the finest bass-voices in the German-speaking world, as visitors to the Vienna State Opera must be well aware of. Not all the singers are free from wobbles and other signs of wear, but of course the score puts heavy demands on most of the characters.

At the moment there is no competition, but there has been, and if EMI's recording from 1990 would ever appear again it would probably be an even better recommendation. I have only heard a few snippets from it, but they showed what this issue most obviously lacks: a tinge of France. It was after all written to a French libretto and in this Vienna cast there isn't a native French speaker. On the other hand the EMI set, a studio recording from Monte Carlo, led by Lawrence Foster and with a starry cast of mostly French-speakers, has an altogether more Gallic tone. José Van Dam in the title role has a roundness of tone - and the idiomatic pronunciation - that at once elevates the music. With names like Gabriel Bacquier, Gino Quilico, Jean-Philippe Courtis, Brigitte Fassbaender, Barbara Hendricks and even Nicolaï Gedda in the small role as the Shepherd we are in a different world. In a way it lends the whole reading a greater resemblance to Debussy, which may not be what Enescu intended, but it is a lusher sound and so more mitigating than the harsher Vienna sound.

With good sound taken from the Austrian Radio (ORF) this is nevertheless a good and cheap way of getting to know this work - provided one is equipped with good nerves.

Göran Forsling

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