Oedipe, Royal Opera, London — ‘Mounting intensity’

Johan Reuter in 'Oedipe'. Photo: Clive Barda©Clive Barda

Johan Reuter in ‘Oedipe’. Photo: Clive Barda

The Oedipus legend casts a extended shadow more than theatre and film from Dryden and Voltaire to Cocteau and Pasolini. Opera has been a lot more reluctant to engage with it. Only Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, an “opera-oratorio”, comes round with regularity, a lot more in the concert hall than the opera house. Julian Anderson’s recent Thebans also tried its hand at English National Opera.

That leaves George Enescu’s Oedipe, premiered in 1936, as the primary operatic setting of the myth. Though his opera is acquiring performances much more usually than it utilised to, this new production is the very first time it has been staged at London’s Royal Opera Property. It leaves a dour, slow-moving, but ultimately strong impression.

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Enescu’s setting is ambitious in relating Oedipus’s life story from cradle to grave. Interestingly, Anderson’s Thebans took a comparable selection, telescoping an entire trilogy into 1 evening, but, unlike that, Oedipe in no way feels rushed. Far from it — the initial two acts are a extended slog, worse than Wagnerian in their refusal to hurry in engaging the audience either musically or dramatically. But don’t leave at the interval: the second half, as Oedipus discovers the double horror of his fate, rouses tragedy of mounting intensity.

Thankfully, the Royal Opera production by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, shared with Brussels and Paris, is visually impressive from the begin. The curtain goes up to reveal a wall of ancient Greek figures, like a giant frieze, right after which the action moves to Enescu’s own time. Some modern clichés apart (the road-menders, the initial globe war aircraft), it aspires to a timeless grandeur.

A fine cast, headed by the tireless Johan Reuter as Oedipe, is offered small to perform with musically. Enescu rarely provides the singers a lot more than lyrical scraps, but Sarah Connolly’s Jocaste, John Tomlinson’s Tirésias, Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Sphinx and Sophie Bevan’s Antigone all make their mark. The Royal Opera orchestra, carried out by Leo Hussain, plays scrupulously even when Enescu’s score is wandering about aimlessly and tends to make the most of its French-tinted higher points, as impressionist mists cloud Oedipe’s thoughts and blazing brass reinforces the final flood of light. Not a neglected masterpiece, but a critical piece of work. See it now or not at all.

To June 8,

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Section: Arts