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.
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.
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.
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.
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