Oedipe, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, May 2016Posted on 24 May 2016
After a gestation period of over twenty years, Enescu’s only opera saw its first performance in 1936. Since then it has been a rarity, and despite this interesting production, originally created in 2011 for La Monnaie in Brussels, one sees why.
Enescu’s inspiration was Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, considered one of the finest dramas ever written, though it only comprises Act 3 of this four-act work, the fourth act being Oedipus at Colonus. Turning a play into an opera is not easy, but taking two plays for the last two acts, along with the back-story to the first one for Acts 1 and 2 renders the project well nigh impossible, and the first half really doesn’t come off.
Directors Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco have some good ideas with ‘statues’ in frozen poses coming to life, but they miss the vital concept of Oedipus unwittingly killing his father “where three roads meet”. This is clearly stated in the second half, yet the first half of the production shows a motor vehicle at night on a road heading directly downstage from centre rear to centre front. The three roads allude to the three people: Oedipus, his father Laius, and his mother Jocasta, but this is lost. That of course is a mere production problem as was the very bright light occasionally glaring painfully at the audience during the second half — there are other ways of creating silhouettes on stage. But the musical composition has problems of its own, and when the vast chorus exits after its excellent performance at the beginning — first as statues, then in full vocal mode — there is no music at all.
The musical fabric itself with clouds of interlocking sounds and the able use of folk motifs, all under the sensitive baton of Leo Hussain, has difficulty in tracing an arc through the first half, with a libretto lacking a brilliant dramatist to follow, and it falls into disjointed fragments. Superb singing from the chorus and the large cast, including Alan Oke (Shepherd), Samuel Youn (Creon), Hubert Francis (Laius), Sarah Connolly (Jocasta), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Sphinx), Sophie Bevan (Antigone), Samuel Dale Johnson (Theseus), and gripping performances from John Tomlinson as the blind seer Tiresias, and Johan Reuter as Oedipus himself.
These last two were the stars of Birtwistle’s Minotaur, an opera that will still be around a century hence while Enescu’s work — brilliant musician though he was — languishes in libraries as it has for most of the past eighty years.
Performances continue on various dates until June 8, with a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on June 4 — for details click here.