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
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