A blast from the past

A rare performance of 'Oedipe' reveals that George Enescu was unfamiliar with the concept of 'less is more'

By Raymond Monelle
Sunday 24 November 2013 01:07

There is something terrifyingly big about George Enescu's opera Oedipe. It is big in length, big in orchestral and choral resources, and big in theme – no less than the whole life story of Oedipus, from birth to death.

Enescu uses every device he can lay his hands on; there are tubular bells, a wind machine, a musical saw, two pistol shots, and a recording of a nightingale (the last presumably stolen from Respighi's Pines of Rome). The singers, as well as singing, speak, shout and declaim in Sprechgesang; the chorus groans and gasps and, on one occasion, gives out a bloodcurdling scream.

One of the best things about the Edinburgh Festival is that you get to hear, if not to see, operas that are just names in the history books. Oedipe is well known in Romania, the country of the composer's birth, but otherwise it is seldom done in the West.

The opera took 20 years to compose, and you can tell. The composer overuses his enormous resources and routinely overscores everything. Though himself a soloist – he was a famous violinist – he seldom gives solos to his orchestral musicians; everything is thick and lavishly doubled, and in moments of delicacy, such as the dance of shepherds or Oedipe's tender farewell to his daughter Antigone, he adds more and more instruments until the music is bogged down in a tonal soup.

The harmonic style is tart and dry, a bit like celery garnished with lemon-juice, and rather close to early Schoenberg, with touches of exotic colour out of Holst and Rimsky-Korsakov. The rhythmic gestures are portentous and stagey, making modern listeners think, alas, of cinematic epics. Gurrelieder meets Star Wars, you could say.

Nevertheless, the work has a powerful impact. The libretto, by Edmond Fleg, is loosely based on Sophocles, but rewritten in a kind of perfumed, Cocteau-esque mock-antique French, with huge static scenes of ritual that make you think of Gluck, together with passages of barnstorming excitement. There is a fight in which three men are killed (a violent and bloody affair, the orchestra tells us); one character commits suicide; and Oedipe puts out his own eyes. And the biggest thing of all is the noise. You never heard such shattering blasts, especially as, this being a concert performance in the Usher Hall, we had the mountainous Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

Fortunately, the biggest thing of all was the performance of John Relyea in the title role. This singer emerged at last year's festival as someone to watch, and he has become a star. His commanding, rich, purple bass voice, his angry concentration made Oedipe into a primeval figure. It must be confessed that Enescu gives his hero some magnificent passages, in among all the bombast. A soliloquy in Act II, scene 2 was a fling into wild despair, and the closing scene in which Oedipe rejects the friendly advances of his half-brother Créon (a warm and eager Jonathan Lemalu) was heart-stopping, the blinded hero rejecting his guilt – "Je n'ai rien fait!" – with a fevered bang on the music desk. Relyea was able to tailor his tone and style to the different situations, noble, tender, vicious, imperious, bidding farewell to his eyesight in a strangled croak that exactly focused this macabre scene.

There was another fine passage, Oedipe's dialogue with his stepmother, Mérope, sung by the rich and dense mezzo Anna Burford. Neal Davies, as the old blind seer Tiresias, sounded mean and spiteful rather than wise, and Tim Mirfin, who sang both the High Priest and Phorbas, a Theban statesman, has a young version of Relyea's dark bass.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers made little impression as Jocaste, Oedipe's real mother (and his wife, of course); she was also the Sphinx, singing off stage through a microphone that unfortunately caricatured the voice. Janice Watson was sweet, a bit pastel, as Antigone.

The Romanian conductor, Cristian Mandeal, knew the score and directed with a passionate commitment that made it look like the biggest day of his life. When it ended, he seemed to evaporate in a euphoric haze, standing silently and forgetting to get the chorus up for applause. Those great old troupers the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra took the thing in their stride. They played with taste and style, but you can bet they were already talking about football on the bus back to Glasgow.

By 1931, when this work was finished, bigness was already dated, especially in Paris, where Stravinsky's smart little Oedipus Rex had been premiered four years previously (it will be heard in Edinburgh next week). Dated, too, were pretty-pretty exoticism and echoes of folk music. Today, Oedipe, this enormous work, seems incurably dated and – yes, let's say it – provincial. But it was good to hear it, even at the price of being deaf for the rest of the week.

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