Thursday 9 June 2016

All-time classic: Enescu's 'Oedipe'

Oedipus's wanderings are still not over. This has been the first run ever for Enescu's 'Oedipe' at the Royal Opera House, although this production dates back to 2011, shown at the Brussels opera house La Monnaie / De Munt.

Certainly, take a look at almost any article or review about 'Oedipe' and it's normally described along the lines of a forgotten / overlooked masterpiece. But how do masterpieces get forgotten or overlooked? As I mention later, some of this opera's demands are unlikely to have helped - there is some strange instrumentation to deal with, one female role is forbiddingly unusual and the part of Oedipus itself is a colossal undertaking for the male lead. Mainly, though, this production left me wishing desperately for some kind of speedy revival or commercial release.

First, a run-through the Oedipus story, for those not (yet) familiar with Greek myth. Laius and Jocasta - king and queen of Thebes - are childless. An oracle tells Laius that if he has a son, the child will kill him: so when Jocasta later gives birth to a boy, their joy is short-lived as Laius realises he cannot let the infant live. He arranges for a shepherd to expose the baby in the mountains.

The shepherd, however, doesn't know his Greek myth either. Unable to bring himself to follow Laius's command - instead he passes the child on (seemingly through some kind of ancient-world Shepherd Adoption Network) until eventually the boy is brought up in the royal house at Corinth, by king Polybus and queen Merope. They name him Oedipus - which means, more or less, 'club foot' - after the ankle injuries he sustained when exposed.

Oedipus seems to have a disaster-free adolescence - until, as a young man, he's taunted by a drunk for being illegitimate. His royal 'parents' simply deny the claim when confronted, so he asks the oracle which, as usual, dodges the question but tells him he'll kill his father and marry his mother. (On the plus side, though, his resting place will be sacred to the gods. One suspects this would've been 'scant' comfort.) Terrified into action, he leaves Corinth - thinking, of course, that he's a danger to Polybus and Merope.

On his travels, fate begins to stack the cards against him. He encounters a travelling party at a crossroads, and after a bit of road rage, the driver tries to run him over. Oedipus bests the group, though, and kills them - including the driver: Laius. Then he encounters the Sphinx, the mythical creature holding Thebes in a reign of terror, feeding on anyone who cannot solve her riddles. Wanting to save the city, Oedipus solves the riddle, killing the Sphinx - and the Thebans reward him with the throne, plus the widow Jocasta's hand in marriage.

Of course, Oedipus and Jocasta have no idea they're committing incest. For some years, they live in peace, raise a family and enjoy the affection of the people. Then, a plague befalls Thebes. Jocasta's brother Creon consults the oracle (uh-oh), and returns with the news that Laius's killer is in the city - once the murderer is found and exiled, the pollution will leave with him. In true tragic style, Oedipus begins the slow tortuous process of finding himself out. The seer Tiresias more or less tells Oedipus outright he's the guilty party, which only causes the king to rail at the prophet and accuse Creon of treachery. When the baby Oedipus's possible survival and the circumstances of Laius's death come to light, Oedipus has an inkling that he may be the killer - but still doesn't realise the true extent of the horror. In a deliciously cruel twist, a messenger arrives to announce Polybus's death. At least, Oedipus temporarily thinks, the prophecy was false. He decides not to return to Corinth just in case he can still cause harm to Merope - only for the messenger to 'reassure' him he was adopted.

The final pieces of the puzzle in place, Jocasta commits suicide in shame, and Oedipus blinds himself, before going into exile, with daughter Antigone as his guide. With his sins finally expiated, Oedipus reaches Colonus, where Theseus, the Athenian king, welcomes him and treats them kindly. Meanwhile, chaos reigns back in Thebes as Oedipus's two sons - who were supposed to share rule of the city - fall out, with Eteocles banishing his brother Polynices. Hearing about this, Oedipus curses them both. Creon arrives to try and talk Oedipus into returning to Thebes (so he can die on its soil), followed by Polynices, but Oedipus rebuffs them and goes to his grave in a kind of transfiguration, conferring the divine protection foretold by the oracle onto Athens.

(Slight digression: Although the opera ends at that point, the myth doesn't. Once the sons kill each other in battle, Antigone makes plans to defy Creon's order not to give Polynices a proper burial. Creon arranges to bury Antigone alive in a cave, despite the fact that she's betrothed to his son, Haemon. Tiresias urges Creon to give Polynices the appropriate rites and rescue Antigone, or he will lose his son. But Creon is too late. Antigone hangs herself in the cave, and Haemon kills himself over her body, which in turn causes Creon's grief-stricken wife Eurydice to commit suicide. After his merciless treatment of all the other characters in the story, Creon is left to live alone with the consequences of his actions.)

Possibly that was quite detailed for a 'summary', but it was only while typing it that I realised - if you leave any of it out (and I've still glossed over a few details), you fail to get across the almost exquisite detail of the traps the gods have laid for Oedipus. Every step he takes - not only in his attempts to beat the prophecy but also to do good to others - in fact draws him closer to the inevitable.

The key account of the Oedipus story is in Sophocles's 'Theban' plays. 'Oedipus the King' starts with the plague on Thebes, with the back-story spilling out as Oedipus hunts for the culprit. 'Oedipus at Colonus' cover the events outside Athens. 'Antigone' tells the final part of the story I placed in brackets.

Greek tragedies were normally written in trilogies (the only one surviving complete is Aeschylus's 'Oresteia'), and performed together with a fourth, more light-hearted 'satyr' play afterwards - presumably to give the audiences a chance to pull themselves together. But although there are three Theban plays, they were all written separately, out of storytelling order ('Antigone' is the oldest) and belonged themselves to different groups. Inconsistencies apart (for example, the main one Wikipedia points out is that Creon assumes rule of Thebes at the end of 'Oedipus the King' rather than Oedipus's sons), their overall narrative is coherent enough for them to be normally published and discussed together.

It was impossible to head out to see 'Oedipe' without recalling 'Thebans' - Julian Anderson's superb opera which premiered at English National Opera in 2014. The libretto was by playwright Frank McGuinness, who precision-tooled all three Theban plays into one blistering evening. My first visit to ENO, 'Thebans' introduced me to a couple of my favourite singers, and more importantly, ENO's world-class company. Knowing the importance of the spoken chorus in Greek tragedy, Anderson had written brilliantly for their singing descendants, here playing the citizens of Thebes. Regular visitors to the Specs blog will know my enthusiasm and admiration for ENO's chorus has fired on all cylinders ever since.

Anderson and McGuinness also kept the storytelling firmly modern by playing with the chronology - arranging the action as 'Oedipus the King' / 'Antigone' / 'Oedipus at Colonus'. This worked on a number of levels: the Antigone tale is so unbearably bleak that it almost prohibits the necessary catharsis, while ending with 'Colonus' meant the audience left at a relatively positive point in the story, undercut with the melancholy knowledge of what was to come. I also felt it was a neat nod to the fact that ancient audiences never saw these plays 'in order' either.

So, with a head full of the legend (Classics & English degree, you see) and a successful operatic adaptation fresh in my mind - how would I find this new version of the myth? I'm delighted to say that it still thrilled and surprised me, not just with the inventiveness of the staging but also - thanks to some astonishing casting - with the extraordinary, exemplary performances.

Enescu's opera (premiered in 1936) is epic in scope, following the composer's decision to cover Oedipus's entire life from birth to death. This was a dramatic masterstroke. It allows the opera to close with the 'Colonus' story, giving the character his final blessing/purification and the audience the necessary release. Equally, it puts onstage, in the early acts, some of the most crucial and exciting incidents in the 'Oedipus the King' back-story. (The Greek tragedians had to make use of the 'messenger speech' convention, where all the most visceral or surreal off-stage action is usually reported to the audience by a terrified minion.) We now get important early glimpses at Jocasta and Tiresias in particular - enabling the singers in those roles to build their characters more fully - and see the fateful encounters with Laius and the Sphinx dramatised.

The production (directed by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco) opens with a startling coup de theatre, as initially an ancient frieze appears to cover the curtain. As the opera begins, the figures in the frieze start to move - it is in fact populated by the Act 1 cast and chorus. Unsettling and atmospheric, it summarises in one illusion so many relevant themes - nothing is what it seems; we think we can see, but our eyes deceive us (Tiresias is blind, but is the 'seer' - and upon seeing the truth, Oedipus blinds himself); you might be a moving, thinking being, but is your fate also 'set in stone'?

A programme note tells us that the staging deliberately avoids setting Oedipus in one fixed time, so the opera moves him through the ages, as if he's a universal 'everyman'. I actually think this over-simplifies some of the subtleties of the production. On the surface, we have Act 1 in an ancient setting, people and place caked in clay. Act 2 begins with a modern-dress Oedipus leaving Corinth, and encountering Laius's car at a crossroads marked by the cones and flashing lamps familiar to us from present-day roadworks. Oedipus then meets the Sphinx, which in the myth has a woman's head, lion's body and eagle's wings. Here, she lies waiting in the cockpit of a grounded warplane. Act 3 retains a military feel but with men and women alike kitted out in the dark, dusty shades of martial law and contemporary warfare. Finally, at Colonus, we seem to be free of any specific date-line, except the Athenians appear in all-white 'modern' suits - which I'll come back to.

But in the event, time seems to ebb and flow throughout the production: it's not cut and dried. In the crossroads scene, the fight is unarmed, old-school. The Sphinx's plane seems too old for the militia guarding Thebes (suggesting her inhuman longevity, perhaps). The 'clay' onlookers remain, inscrutable, during the modern acts, and worlds collide when Creon's Theban gang, still in ragged, earthy garb, invade the 'enlightened' space of Colonus, where perhaps the white-suited Athenians represent purity or paradise.

The theme of light versus darkness (sight versus blindness, truth versus lies) informs the whole presentation. Overall, there is gloom, because the illumination is carefully managed. Laius's vehicle headlights dazzle from the back of the stage - as Oedipus is about to fall prey to the prophecy - ironically foreshadowing the blinding beam from the same area which Oedipus walks into at the end of his life. Torches on hi-visibility jackets turn the roadworks men into identical unidentifiable ciphers. Swooping searchlights around the Sphinx's plane add to the 'checkpoint' atmosphere. Oedipus is cleansed of his sin in a shower of light from above.

Enescu's score - thrilling and fascinating - also feels a little suspended, rooted in the post-Wagner 'music drama' idea that the music should track and support the characters and story (rather than break up easily into showcase arias), but with modernist nods towards the contemporary - like the musical saw keening at the death of the Sphinx. The Sphinx is also given vocal effects to emphasise her otherness - brilliantly sung by Marie-Nicole Lemieux, lasting in the mind long after her dying cackle. It must take a good deal of artistic bravery to display a voice so clearly attractive and versatile, then be willing to make it alien and horrific as required. Watching her slowly wake and rise in the cockpit (behind the propeller, slowly starting to turn) is real edge-of-the-seat stuff, and you're almost sorry when Oedipus solves the riddle. Lemieux, as she starts to convulse, stops the propeller with her hand before crumpling.

There's no denying that sheer star-wattage lights up the stage, too. Sir John Tomlinson inhabits Tiresias with that unstoppable, authoritative 'boom' and undimmed charisma. Sarah Connolly was in beautiful voice as Jocasta, bringing colour and variation to a character mostly heard in distress (giving up her baby, then imploring him later on - as her adult husband/son - to let things be). A consummate stage actor, beyond the sound, she allowed us to see how time glides by, making Jocasta the loving mother, then willing bride and finally distraught victim.

(Sarah Connolly as Jocasta, Johan Reuter as Oedipus. Photograph from ROH site, by Clive Barda.)

But overall, the evening belonged to bass-baritone Johan Reuter as Oedipus. I first heard him when he gave an unforgettable account of Barak in the recent ROH production of Strauss's 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' - he is able to sing with tremendous weight and power while appearing completely 'natural' and unforced. Every conversation and movement convinces, feels realistic. The role is also a tour-de-force in terms of stamina and consistency, as Oedipus is at the centre of everything from Act 2 onwards. JR seemed vocally and physically untroubled by this, his Oedipus at Colonus almost regenerated, renewed by the holy light.

I'm sure this will be remembered as one of the year's key performances - itself surrounded and enhanced by so much brilliance. I don't think any night was filmed, sadly, so am not expecting a DVD. However, it was broadcast on the radio - so, if you're in a region where you can use BBC iPlayer Radio, you can find the recording here for the next three weeks (after the date on this blog post). Please, if you can listen - do.

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