Georga Enescu: Oedipe
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski
Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic, Romanian Radio Children’s Choir
Royal Festival Hall, 23 September 2017
A pupil of Faure and a teacher of Yehudi Menuhin, the Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu occupied a key, but usually overlooked, position in the musical world of the first half of the last century, a time of musical experimentation that he, by and large, avoided. Oedipe was his only opera and has been largely forgotten since its first performance in 1936 in Paris. It took him around 2o years to write. According to Menuhin, he kept the score by his bed so that he could jot down ideas easily.
Unusually amongst the many tellings of the Oedipus myth, Enescu covers the whole of Oedipus’s life, from birth to apparent death. Edmond Fleg’s libretto (much reduced from his original version, which would have entailed an opera spanning two evenings) draws on Oedipus Rex for Act 3 and uses part of the plot of Oedipus at Colonus for Act 4.
It has only been performed three times in Britain, including a much cut staging at the Royal Opera House last year. This concert performance, from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, opened the recent George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, and also formed the opening of the LPOs new London season. They were joined by the Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic and, for the finale of Act II, by the largely female Romanian Radio Children’s Choir.
Musically it weaves an independent path through the musical twists and turns of the first half of the 20th century, eschewing the wilder experiments but equally generally avoiding a relishing of the past. The musical influences are large, ranging from the late French romantics to his own Romanian folk tradition. The orchestration is complex, with a wide range of colours and textures, setting considerable challenges to the woodwind players (notably Juliette Bausor, flute, Stewart McIlwham, piccolo, Ian Hardwick, oboe, and Jonathan Davies, bassoon) and key roles for the solo cello and viola (here played by Kristina Blauane and David Quiggle).
It is very clearly a difficult work to perform and conduct, with what seemed to be some complex rhythms and time signatures to cope with alongside a rich tapestry of orchestral colours. Vladimir Jurowski is a master at dealing with such complexities, his clear direction and musician-friendly approach is essential for a score like this. There are a large number of vocal roles, the key one being the title role. Paul Gay was on stage for most of the time, and made an imposing presence, not least for his attire – all white for the first half, and bright red trousers after the interval, perhaps to echo the red lighting of the RFH organ during the gory bits. It is a tricky part, testing both the top and bottom of the singer’s range, but also involves a complex range of emotions, all of which Gay excelled at.
Other key singers were Sir Willard White, Christopher Purves, Graham Clark, In Sung Sim, Ruxandra Donose, Ildikó Komlósi, Gabriela Iştoc, and Dame Felicity Palmer. Some modern-day innovations were used, including a recording of real thunder rather than a thunder-sheet, and of real nightingales instead of the often comedic whistles. The voice of the Sphinx, who sang from one of the side boxes, was amplified, apparently, in a quest to allowed her to sing at a very low dynamic to create the required range of vocal colour, and to make her voice more mystical and out of this world. This would have been far more effective if Ildikó Komlósi had actually sung quietly into the microphone, rather than projecting her voice above and beyond it. She was accompanied by a musical saw.
This was an opera that gained from a concert performance, leaving the settings and scenery up to the imagination and allowing the plot to develop without the intervention of the notions of a director. It was recorded, so a CD release might be in the offing.
Entrance to the Cantacuzino Palace, Bucharest, Enescu’s home courtesy of his wife, the Princess Maruca Cantacuzino, and now the George Enescu Museum.