This set presents
the North American premiere of Enescu’s great opera and is taken
from a concert performance given at the University of Illinois
in October 2005.
Ian Hobson, the
conductor, has some experience in Enescu’s work both on the
podium and also at the keyboard. Hobson won First Prize at the
1981 Leeds International Piano Competition, and frequently plays
Enescu’s own arrangement of the First Romanian Fantasy. Recently
(2006) at Wigmore Hall, London he audaciously followed Liszt’s
B minor sonata with it. The other experienced Enescu interpreter
present in the pit with Hobson is violinist Sherban Lupu, here
taking the role of concertmaster. A Professor at the University
of Illinois, Lupu founded the Enescu String Ensemble there.
Together violinist and Ensemble recorded vital versions of some
lesser-known Enescu works for Romanian Radio in 2005; so there
is clearly some history of Enescu performance at the University
of Illinois. Lesser-known chamber works are one thing, the challenge
of Oedipe is entirely another.
Those that are interested
in my views on the other commercial and off-air recordings of
live performances should visit the links given at the foot of
the review. I will keep my comments from now on focused on the
The orchestra and
chorus are faithfully recorded. The Act I prelude announces
a reading that is not totally possessed from the first with
a feeling of the inevitable. If the orchestra and chorus had
been of greater numbers then no doubt the weight of tone that
Enescu’s writing calls for at mp dynamic could have been
realised with greater certainty. Hobson, understandably given
that this was the first performance by these forces, is cautious
in pacing individual phrases, but when things take fire and
gather momentum his reading is remarkably involving.
To the best of my
knowledge only one of the singers, Stefan Ignat, had previously
sung the role assigned him in the opera. All the other singers
are new to me. There are times when one feels Ignat’s involvement
tellingly in proceedings – Act II, scene 1 during the brutal
encounter with Laios, or scene 3 in the encounter with the Sphinx;
later in Act III he is baleful and haughty by turns – but his
downfall is the frequently indistinct pronunciation of text,
a point I noted on hearing him in the role in Cagliari, Italy
in January 2005. That said, there is no doubting his vocal commitment
and he particularly seems to relish the moments of personal
anguish within the role.
The choice of an
ideal singer for the title role is a hard one, given that it’s
one of the toughest, most unrelenting of all bass-baritone parts
ever written. Xavier Depraz (recorded under Charles Bruck),
David Ohanesian (recorded under Brediceanu), Josè van Dam (recorded
under Foster), or Esa Ruutennen and John Relyea (in performance
under Mandeal) all gave their own individual vocal weights to
it. To my ears Oedipe the role is more convincing with a singer
who is stronger as a bass than a baritone – which does not map
onto Ignat’s voice entirely – but whatever the strength of the
singer he must be able to cope well with high baritonal reaches
too. This Ignat does well, and better than Pederson who was
recorded under Gielen on Naxos.
There are some fine
singers amongst the other cast members. Ricardo Herrera (Tirésias),
Bradley Robinson (Créon), and Harold Gray Meers (Le berger)
all cope well with the demands made upon them. Herrera doubles
effectively as the Watchman in the Sphinx scene, and Michael
York puts in a useful double appearance as The High Priest and
Phorbas. In recent years it has been common – in performances
featuring Marjana Lipovsek, at least – for the roles of Jocaste
and The Sphinx to be taken by the same singer. I feel, however,
that there is something to be had in having two quite different
timbres in the music. The Sphinx is a role that any dramatic
mezzo could revel in and Stephanie Chigas does just that. Imposing,
cajoling, demanding – she does nearly all one could ask for.
For all the scenes
of outward drama and emotion in the first three Acts, I find
Act IV unsurpassed in all opera to reveal more of the major
protagonist through a journey to inner peace and self-reconciliation.
A pity that in this performance Ignat does not quite capture
the valedictory glow at the close which he found in Cagliari.
Here he sounds tired, which is potentially positive given we
see Oedipe as an old and weary man. However, his tiredness is
more vocal than emotional, and as a consequence the resultant
performance is not quite what one would ideally want.
The second Oedipe
to appear on disc this year, and the second that is not
entirely satisfactory as a first choice. However, as I said
at the beginning, the scale of the undertaking was vast. I nonetheless
salute the resolve of all concerned in bringing off an earnest
attempt in performance. It has two advantages over the competitively
priced release on Naxos: it gives the music uncut and provides
a full libretto and translation. It is a shame that the track
numbers are not given within the libretto to make following
it easier, should one not know the work. Informative notes by
Sever Tipei complete the booklet.
for overall musicality and depth of insight I would suggest
Brediceanu followed by Foster in the studio recording stakes,
assuming one does not mind Brediceanu’s reading being in Romanian.
If you are after a studio recording in French and without cuts,
then Foster on EMI is still the one to go for. I would strongly
urge however Charles Bruck’s 1955 Radio France off-air relay
be tracked down as an essential piece of additional listening.
In the theatre, do not neglect Mandeal. Inexplicably, recording
companies have to date where Oedipe is concerned –
much to their shame.
of available recordings of Enescu’s compositions – May 2005:
CD release and various off-air recordings – May 2006: