OEDIPE by Georges Enescu ; Royal Opera House – Photo: © ROH Photographer: Clive Barda
The development of this particular opera took place over 20 years, Romanian violinist, pianist, conductor and composer George Enescu began work on Oedipe in 1910. His librettist, the French poet Edmond Fleg, was still making changes to the text by 1921 , whilst Enescu did not finish the score of this, his only opera, until 1932. The opera’s premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1936 was generally well received but in 1937 the opera was dropped from the repertory and was not performed again until 1955. Despite recent interest in the piece, the opera has only had occasional performances. Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus first staged their production of Oedipe at La Monnaie, Brussels, in 2011. This performance is the first time the opera has been staged at Covent Garden.
The opera begins with a long opening prelude that suggests the epic nature of the opera and the remarkable opening scene confirms that suggestion. When the curtain open, the front of the stage is dominated by a large structure over four levels on which the cast and the large chorus stand motionless. Both the dramatic Alfons Flores set and the earthy mud coloured costumes by Lluc Castell evoke images of a renaissance painting or a terracotta army waiting for action.
Sarah Connolly as Jocaste; Hubert Francis as Laïos; Nicolas Courjal as Theban High Prest; Photo: © ROH Photographer: Clive Barda
The action begins with a short celebration of the birth of a son to King Laios and Queen Jocaste but changes dramatically with the arrival of Tiresias, a blind prophet who berates the couple for defying the gods and reveals that the child is destined to murder his father and marry his mother. The tragic reaction of the King and Queen is amplified by the large chorus who portray that the news is not only a disaster for the royal couple but the whole city. The music merely adds to the sense of foreboding as the enormous set magically slides into the background to form the centre of the square within a city.
Johan Reuter as Oedipe; Photo: © ROH Photographer: Clive Barda
And so the scene is set for the journey of one man, Oedipe from birth to death in which he not only has to battle his own demons but has to deal with the stain of the perceived sins of his parents. Whilst Oedipe muses on the cards he has been dealt, events began to take on a dramatic turn when he unknowingly murders his father and comes face to face with Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Sphinx accompanied by a large German fighter plane from the Second World War. By destroying the Sphinx, Oedipe become an hero to the people of Thebes and is offered the kingdom and marriage to the Queen Jocaste. The gradual fulfilment of the prophecy added to the Sphinx’s warning that Oedipe’s triumph will lead to his downfall provides plenty of evidence that this will not have a happy ending.
Oedipe – Johan Reuter as Oedipe; Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Sphinx; Photo: © ROH Photographer: Clive Barda
After the interval, Oedipe’s life unravels when the facts of this birth are revealed which leads to Queen Jocaste committing suicide and Oedipe blinding himself. Finally he arrives at a grove in Athens with his daughter Antigone where the voices of the Furies beckon him to his final resting place and perhaps salvation. The final act in some ways provides a chink of light in a work that has many shades of dark, Greek myths often feature the interplay between the Gods and mortals. Both sides are governed by their own laws and it is left to the audience to make sense of concepts such has free will and destiny.
OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Royal Opera House – Photo: © ROH Photographer: Clive Barda
Alex Olle’s staging which includes many influences is one where the story transcends a time and place and becomes a universal one. Johan Reuter’s Oedipe convinces as the Everyman trying to survive against all the odds, he is ably supported by Sarah Connolly as a troubled Jocaste and John Tomlinson’s world weary Tiresias. Enescu’s score also reflects many influences that were ably transmitted by conductor Leo Hussain and the orchestra.
Oedipe is an ‘epic’ opera on many levels and is often considered either a neglected masterpiece or a gloomy melodrama. This rare production at the Royal Opera House gives an opportunity for the audience to judge for themselves. The extraordinary sets and staging provide a stunning visual spectacle as you are asked to contemplate some of the often disturbing themes of human existence.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Recommended
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