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George ENESCU (1881–1955)
Oedipe, Opera in four acts (1936)
José Van Dam (bass-baritone) – Oedipus; Gabriel Bacquier (baritone) – Tiresias; Marcel Vanaud (bass) – Creon; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) – Shepherd; Cornelius Hauptmann (bass) – High Priest; Laurence Albert (bass) – Phorbas; Jean-Philippe Courtis (bass) – Watchman; Gino Quilico (baritone) – Theseus; John Aler (tenor) – Laius; Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo) – Jocasta; Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo) – The Sphinx; Barbara Hendricks (soprano) – Antigone; Jocelyne Taillon (mezzo) – Merope; Isabelle Vernet (soprano) – A Theban Woman
Les Petits Chanteurs de Monaco; Orfeón Donostiarra,
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo/Lawrence Foster
rec. 7-20 June 1989, Salle Garnier, Monte Carlo
Full libretto and translations at
[79:36 + 77:02]


Experience Classicsonline

Almost three years ago I reviewed a Naxos set of this opera, recorded live at the Vienna State Opera. This was my first confrontation with this seminal work and I refer readers to that (review) for some of my impressions and general comments on the music. A few months later my colleague Evan Dickerson, who is an Enescu specialist and has seen numerous performances as well as heard a number of off-the-air recordings, also reviewed the same recording (review) and included an overview of other versions. We both mentioned the only other commercially recording – this one under Lawrence Foster. Here it is now, at a price that is comparable to the Naxos, which makes a new assessment and comparison both apt and timely.

The external differences are illuminating and may well serve as guidance in themselves:

The Naxos recording was made live during the opening night of the production at the Vienna State Opera. This gives dramatic and theatrical verve to the performance but also brings with it a degree of stage noise. The playing of the orchestra and singing of the chorus is first-class, as could only be expected from these forces. Michael Gielen, with special affinity for 20th century music, draws the utmost intensity in an expressionist way from all involved. This may be to the detriment of the impressionist aspects that are also an essential part of this fascinating score. The strain of a one-night performance – and the premiere at that – also means that everything has not settled down. In the case of the title role, which is one of the most demanding in any 20th century opera, Monte Pederson has to economize with his resources and hold back to be able to manage the, mostly spoken, monologue at the end of act III. The opera was composed to a French libretto and premiered in Paris. It has a clear French touch but there isn’t a single native French speaker in the admittedly admirable Vienna cast. A further drawback is that there are several cuts – having no score I can’t specify them – and there is no libretto, only a (very good) synopsis.

The EMI Classics set was recorded in studio in excellent sound with a French chorus and orchestra. Lawrence Foster is not as intensely dramatic; the overall impression is of a more classically balanced reading in an impressionist vein. He has a stellar cast with primarily native French speakers or singers, like Gedda, who are effortlessly idiomatic. Jose Van Dam in the title role wasn’t required to manage his gigantic task at one go – the recording sessions were spread out during a fortnight. He could come fresh to each session and there was room for second and third takes if necessary. The recording is absolutely complete and the original issue included libretto. In the new issue there is only a synopsis but the libretto is available on internet and this is a small price to pay.

As for the performances per se Foster’s is on all counts the most beautiful. The recording lets us hear everything of the marvellous orchestration – vide the prelude and the introduction to act II – just as the many choruses are superbly performed. This is not to say that the dramatic side of the work is underplayed but it is held on a tighter rein. The outcome is a sound that is more French than the Gielen version. Whether Enescu would have preferred this to the more theatrical reading of Gielen is an open question. My own reaction, having been utterly impressed by the Vienna set, is that Foster’s Monte Carlo set added a further dimension to my appreciation of the opera.

Foster’s cast overall is also the stronger. Although most of the singing on the Naxos set is on a very high level there are some wobblers in the cast. EMI with a truly generous budget was able to engage stars like Nicolai Gedda and John Aler in minor tenor roles. Gino Quilico is there for the rather brief role of Theseus. There’s Marjana Lipovšek as the Sphinx, a role she also sings on the Naxos set, where she doubles as Jocasta. In both parts she was excellent and her Sphinx is one of the best things on this set too. Brigitte Fassbaender, as is her wont, creates an involving and personal portrait of Jocasta. Barbara Hendricks, always good in French repertoire, is a sensitive Antigone and Jocelyne Taillon is a good Merope. Of the men Jean-Philippe Courtis should be mentioned for his sonorous and restrained Watchman, on a par with the impressive Walter Fink on Naxos. Veteran Gabriel Bacquier is a marvellously expressive and many-faceted Tiresias, chillingly snarling in the third act.

But any performance of this opera stands or falls with Oedipe himself, who is on stage almost continuously throughout. The exception is the short first act where he is on stage but only as the newly-born child. Monte Pederson’s assumption was as complete as could be imagined, considering the almost impossible task to sing and act the role with little rest between acts. José Van Dam, who has been one of the foremost bass-baritones for more than three decades, recorded the role in mid-career. He demanded two years’ preparation before he was prepared to record it. His is a reading of comparable excellence and where they differ most obviously is in the greater beauty of tone and the warmth and nobility that Van Dam invests in the role, particularly in the last act. This is also in line with Foster’s conducting.

Listening to the Naxos recording was a hair-raising adventure. Listening to the EMI set was just as hair-raising but with added frisson in the shape of beauty of sound and greater warmth. The Naxos set has a thrill that at times seems unbearable, placing the ancient drama in the real world. The EMI is probably easier to come to terms with for newcomers to the work. Both sets are essential listening for opera lovers – not only for specialists in 20th century music.

Göran Forsling 




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