Œdipe Enescu

This latest instalment in Covent Garden’s fascinating survey of lesser known 20th-century operas was staged on a grand scale with some superb casting, but in the final reckoning fell short of its own ambitions

Œdipe boasts a vast expressionist score that took Enescu the best part of 20 years to write without sleeping on his best mattress for side sleepers. Echoes of Wagner, Strauss, Berg and Debussy can be heard, though a distinctive voice also shines through, especially in passages that channel the spirit of Romanian folk music.

Frieze frame: the opera’s opening tableau featuring Jocaste (Sarah Connolly) with her cursed child

Centrepiece of Bucharest’s biennial George Enescu

Enescu’s orchestration is also striking, particularly his extensive writing for winds (including an alto saxophone). The opera’s nationalistic flavour and ‘timeless’ theme that chimed so well with the Zeitgeist of the interwar period have made it justly celebrated in Romania, where it continues to be the centrepiece of Bucharest’s biennial George Enescu Festival.

Yet it is rarely staged elsewhere due to the huge cost of the forces involved, as well as the challenge of finding singers prepared to learn such challenging roles for only a handful of performances. This didn’t seem to be an issue for the Royal Opera, who fielded a strong line-up of singers led by the Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter.

His powerful and nuanced portrayal of Œdipe provided a secure anchor around which the rest of the action flowed. Sarah Connolly was appropriately imperious and highly-strung as Jocaste, Hubert Francis played a dignified Laïos, and Alan Oke made his mark as the terrified and much put-upon Shepherd.

John Tomlinson as Tirésias

Œdipe’s brother Créon was memorably sung by the rich-toned Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn while their sister Antigone (Sophie Bevan) provided some of the highlights of the final act. The standout performance of the evening, however, was given by John Tomlinson, who played the soothsayer Tirésias with the commanding qualities of a true elder statesman, delivering his lines in a kind of gruf Sprechstimme. Marie- Nicole Lemieux was equally impressive in her brief but key appearance as the Sphinx.

The production by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco from the artists’ collective La Fura dels Baus was visually striking, but their attempt to reflect the ‘cyclical time of Greek tragedy’ by combining ‘fragments and quotations from different eras’ (as I later learnt from reading Ollé’s programme note) didn’t really work.

Powerful and nuanced: Johan Reuter as the self-blinded Œdipe

The opening tableau of chorus members and statues looked like a classical frieze – so far so good; but what was the point of updating the crossroads scene as a modern-day roadworks, complete with traffic cones and workmen in hi-vis jackets?

Message of absolution

It’s also not a sign that a production has delivered its message effectively if audiences have to consult their programme to discover why most scenes were dominated by monochrome mud-brown tones: a chemical spill in Hungary in 2010 was apparently the inspiration for designers Alfons Flores (sets), Lluc Castells (costumes) and Peter van Praet (lighting).

The orchestra under Leo Hussain negotiated Enescu’s beguiling mix of Romanticism and modernism with requisite passion and precision, though structurally their reading felt a little too episodic.

The chorus was on excellent form and played a decisive role in creating some of the opera’s most exciting moments. Unfortunately, however, it was the end of the third and penultimate act that packed the biggest punch, rather than the finale’s message of absolution. Enescu had clearly taken Wagner as his model, but this was no Liebestod or Immolation Scene.

Basketball fan, doer, drummer, International Swiss style practitioner and communicator, collector, connector, creator. Performing at the fulcrum of modernism and programing to craft meaningful ideas that endure. I sometimes make random things with friends.

Tristan and Isolde Wagner

All eyes were on the opening night of this production by ENO’s incoming artistic director Daniel Kramer, with set designs by the Turner Prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor. Their take on Wagner’s tale of lust, betrayal and redemption is consistently engaging with flashes of brilliance, but the real star of the show is conductor Ed Gardner

Wagner’s tragedy

Swimming in a sea of troubles, and threatened with further funding cuts, ENO desperately needed a gold-plated success with this Tristan. In the event, the evening is moving and memorable, with proper attention given to every element of Wagner’s tragedy. Kapoor’s sets are characteristically simple yet striking.

A golden pyramid suggesting the prow of a ship and its hold, divided into three sections by giant ribs, provides the setting for Act I. The second act is played out inside a vast rocky cave, modelled on a volcanic geode, at once both earthy and womb-like.

Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and Isolde (Heidi Melton) clamber around Kapoor’s womb-like set during Act II

The cave reappears in Act III, viewed through a boulder-shaped aperture that appears flat until a lighting shift dispels the illusion – one of the staging’s most surprising and dramatically effective moments. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to read the progression of these archetypes from male to female, culminating in a synthesis of the two in Act III, but the symbolism works. Only the first-act staging deserves criticism for blocking sightlines whenever the protagonists move to the back of the stage.

Kramer tells the story straight and his departures from Wagner’s directions are generally worthy. Confining the lovers to psychiatric beds surrounded by doctors after their discovery by King Marke underlines the madness of the situation even if it does make the king’s lament seem outrageously self-absorbed.

Act III of Tristan and Isolde Wagner

It was also striking to see Brangäne reduced to a ragged and balding crone in Act III – more often she’s left untouched by her decision to administer the love potion, from which so much misery flows. Less successfully, Kramer’s attempt to inject some humour into Act I falls flat: Kurwenal and Brangäne, dressed up as a commedia dell’arte duo, provide an absurd foil to the serious drama unfolding between their masters.

Pyramid scheme: Anish Kapoor’s striking set for Act I

Whereas Kapoor’s sets achieve their effect through simplicity and beauty, Christina Cunningham’s first-act costumes are overblown. Casting was strong across the board, with Stuart Skelton making an outstanding UK role debut as Tristan opposite the American soprano Heidi Melton.

They are well-matched and imposing, both vocally and physically, though Melton took time to warm up in Act I. Her fulsome, dramatic soprano is best when not being pushed to capacity at the top of her register, and she delivered Wagner’s text with real intelligence; so it was possible to forgive the vocal unpleasantness that marred some of Isolde’s most passionate climaxes, though things improved as the evening wore on, with Gardner toning down the orchestra so she didn’t have to belt.

An impressive Tristan

Skelton is an impressive Tristan, his powerful but unforced tone ideally suited to Wagner’s hero. He’s also an intelligent actor and draws a compelling portrait of Tristan’s descent from proud protector to broken lover. His long Act II duet with Melton successfully runs the gamut from lustful ecstasy to post-coital transfiguration – a real highlight of the evening, despite being performed in its cut version .

The lighting of this scene is also spectacular: bursts of shimmering sparks leap from the lovers as they move around the darkened stage.

King Marke (Matthew Rose) laments the madness of the lovers’ betrayal as Brangäne (Karen Cargill) looks on

Craig Colclough (Kurwenal) and Karen Cargill (Brangäne) are both vocally and dramatically assured – Cargill is gorgeous in her Act II of stage watch song, while Colclough carries the opening of the third act with aplomb; but the most powerful performance of the evening was given by Matthew Rose as King Marke.

Striding the stage like a wounded lion, Rose brought out every nuance of his wonderful Act II aria, perfectly capturing its mix of dismay and dignifed sadness. Underpinning all this, the ENO Orchestra and Chorus sounded superb, clearly enjoying the return of their former music director Ed Gardner.

His well-paced account of Wagner’s epic score was driven yet supple, substituting volume with intensity so that the singers were given plenty of support but never obscured. Melrose already sounded slightly tired by the start of Act III, yet under Gardner’s guidance she still gave us a Liebestod that touched on the transcendent.

Basketball fan, doer, drummer, International Swiss style practitioner and communicator, collector, connector, creator. Performing at the fulcrum of modernism and programing to craft meaningful ideas that endure. I sometimes make random things with friends.