27 September 2021. I was yesterday at the Paris Bastille Opera, attending a performance of Georges Enesco’s rare opera Oedipe. Now, I must declare myself a great and unconditional fan of Enesco (or, using the Romanian spelling, Enescu) . His violin sonatas belong to my pantheon of the greatest works in the genre of all times – and not only the famous Third “in the Romanian popular style” (indeed an absolute masterpiece, a work of devastating evocative power), but also his Romantic second, and his ultimate cycle “Impressions of Childhood”, which, if even possible, go further and higher than the Third. I love his way-less-popular two string quartets, Piano Quintet and Octet. Although I have many versions in my CD-library, I am much less familiar with his orchestral output – I’m just lacking listening time.
So I was really looking forward to the opportunity of Oedipe.
Well… I must declare myself a great fan of Enesco… but not anymore unconditional, and not of all his music. I found Oedipe excruciatingly boring. The music sounded to me very banal: big orchestral forces and a lot happening in the orchestra, but all couched in a late-Romantic idiom which you have heard so many times – if you have a little interest in that style – in the works of Zemlinsky, Joseph Marx, Franz Schmidt, Arnold Bax, Josef Suk, and many others, and displaying little of the daring inventiveness found in Enesco’s chamber music…. None of the oriental lushness of Szymanowski (which you may have expected of Enesco), very little of the shimmering delicacy of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The vocal lines are run-of-the-mill French opera, with, to compound the problem, a constant solemnity because, of course, Oedipus is seee-rious and serious must be solemn. The lyrics are by Edmond Fleg, a French playright who had his hour a modest fame in the 20th-century French “Republic of Letters”. The one thing I can say in favor of Fleg is that, although his lyrics are written in verse (much of them alexandrines, the canonic 12-syllable verse of French poetry), they flow naturally enough that, unless you have an ear very attuned to these things, you won’t even know that it’s verse… as in Meilhac and Halévy’s libretto for Bizet’s Carmen… And I won’t hold it against Fleg that he certainly doesn’t observe all the very constraining rules of French classical poetry, because, after all, who cares…. On the other hand, Fleg’s lyrics and “poetic language” do add their layer of constant (and ultimately boring) solemnity of the whole proceedings. One interest at least with Enesco’s (and Fleg’s) Oedipe is that is doesn’t just sheepishly follow the famous play of Sophocles, it compounds the various Oedipus-traditions of the Greek mythology and stages what Oedipus-Tyrannos presents as mere references to things past: the birth of Oedipus and his sacrifice because of the fateful oracle told to his father Laïus, Oedipus’s flight from Corinth where he had been raised by the Queen and King as their own son and ignorant that he wasn’t, the encounter with Laïus at the crossroads of Corinth and Thebes and his murder at the hand of Oedipus, the riddle with the Spynx and the espousal with Jocasta. The opera’s third act stages the actions in the play of Sophocles, and the fourth act corresponds to Sophocles’ other and less-famous play on Oedipus, recounting the death of the blind castaway accompanied by his daughter Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus. Another interesting thing about Fleg is that, as my bored mind was wandering away from the opera, I said to myself at some point that next thing the Paris Opera might do is to produce this other great neglected opera in French language, by a composer who presents some similarities with Enesco (not French, but French-speaking, his musical invention rooted in popular traditions – not Romanian, but Jewish): Ernest Bloch’s Macbeth. And, checking on Edmond Fleg’s biography on Wikipedia, it turns out that he authored two opera librettos in his life – the other being, you’ve guessed, Bloch’s Macbeth…
The production didn’t help, either. It was staged by Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese stage director and playwright who enjoys a certain recognition in some French theatrical circles. Well, I don’t know about his theatre productions, but here he seems to have been content with staging the way they did 50 or 60 years ago: everybody singing to the public (always a problem, possibly, in venues as huge as the Bastille opera), making no pretense at even trying to address their interlocutor. Set design were “abstract” although evoking, perhaps, some massive Babylonian (rather than Greek) archicture. And those costumes! I thought I was seeing old images from Wieland Wagner’s Ring productions in Bayreuth in the 1950s…. A cliched imagery of Ancient Priests and Vestals…
And why did Oedipus trudge along with only ONE shin protection? I mean, I get the point of having arm protection only on the arm that bears the sword… but leg? Are we supposed to understand that he’s some Karate Kid who strikes only with the left foot? But the hair-dresses were even worse: I don’t know if they were supposed to depict the horns of stags or mooses, or some wild vegetation… I guess that the notion is that those Ancient Greeks from the mythical ages had some special link with nature – you know, “Gaia”, “Mother Earth” and all that mystical drivel – that we’ve lost, and maybe there were some reminiscences of the films of Pasolini. They were grotesque.
Oedipus is a huge role and Christopher Maltman coped valiantly and with powerful vocal projection, although by no stretch of the imagination could you believe you were watching a 20-year old character (and by then Jocasta must be how old? 35? And when the plague strikes Thebes, that’s another 15 years later…)… Maltman’s French was okay, and I’m ready to accept that French baritones able to cope with the acoustics of the Bastille Opéra aren’t an abundant commodity… but the Russian Ekaterina Gubanova as Jocasta? Why? It’s a small role (all roles other than Oedipus are relatively small), and sure you are going to need a dramatic soprano, but can’t you find a dramatic soprano more fluent in the French language these days? And it isn’t a question of nationality: Anne-Sophie von Otter coped very well in the role of Merope (Queen of Corinth, adoptive mother of Oedipus) and with pristine French accent.
Of course, I leaf through the thick booklet published by Opéra Bastille, or the libretto to the 1990 EMI recording with José van Dam and conducted by Lawrence Foster , and I read all these eulogies about Oedipe, how it’s Enesco’s great masterpiece, that obsessed him night and day for 30 years, I read Menuhin’s testimony (a great pupil and disciple of Enesco, as, later, was Christian Ferras) which opens the EMI booklet- “here lies the very soul and heartblood of Enesco”: and how could I not doubt my own judgment? Let me quote the EMI liner notes, by distinguished French critic and musicologist Harry Halbreich (with my own comments in brackets, and a translation that I’ve slightly ammended to better fit the original French): “Oedipe is a supreme masterpiece in the history of opera of all times [let us start in a bang, and refrain from no exaggeration], one of the peaks of 20th-century opera among a handful of works that include Pelléas, Wozzeck, Lulu or Die Soldaten [Halbreich does speak of “a handful”, meaning that he is mentioning the five top operas in 20th century music: no Puccini, no Britten, no Strauss – not Salomé and Elektra, really? -, no Janacek, not Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, but Enesco’s Oedipe…]. Yet one looks for a mention of it in the main opera guides – even the celebrated Kobbé – in vain: this is beyond comment”.
What do you mean, “beyond comment”, Harry? Quite the opposite! How do you explain that so many commentators and critics would have neglected such an absolute masterpiece, part of the top-five of the twentieth century. Nobody oversaw Pelléas, Wozzeck, Lulu or even Die Soldaten… Well, I have an explanation for you: if your premise is false, then your conclusion will be as well, you know? If Oedipe is NOT the masterpiece you make it, then no wonder all those commentators, including the Kobbé, have neglected it…
And, coming back to Menuhin’s comment: he adds that “perhaps the most haunting fragment of the opera, one which continues to return to my mind, is the Shepherd’s flute solo at the crossroads, just before the fateful encounter in the first act“. Well, sure, I agree: that was about the ONLY memorable moment in the opera, one in which the Enesco from the 3rd Sonata seems to pierce through. No wonder it is the one that kept haunting Menuhin.
Yet, as I was listening and trying to keep focused, I was thinking that perhaps it was the inept and even corny staging that prevented me from grasping the beauties of Enesco’s orchestral writing… despite the fact that, given the ineptitude of what was going on on stage, I hadn’t much else to do but to try and concentrate on the orchestra. At one point I thought it might be helpful to draw a Symphonic suite from Enesco’s Oedipe, or a “Symphonic synthesis” as Leopold Stokowski dubbed it when he did the same with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. So I decided I’d give a second chance to Enesco’s opera, and pulled out the 1990 recording by Lawrence Foster with José van Dam on EMI that had been lying on my shelves awaiting a listen for more than a decade. I’ll try and review it (I also have the recording in Romanian from Electrecord).