Oedipus by George Enescu at the Paris Opera House

Oedipus by George Enescu at the Paris Opera House

In the Grande Opera, which, since April this year, has the 40 year old Gustavo Dudamel as its director (a conductor with a shining career, who parallelly conducts the Philharmonic Orchestra in Los Angeles) the event of the season took place: the second staging of the opera Oedipus by George Enescu, 85 years after its premiere in 1936 in Paris. The opera is a benchmark, the performance was remarkable with its directing and scenography, in which story and symbolism were interpreted ellegantly and appropriately.

Enescu’s opera is rarely put on stage, so it is probable that one may not ‘encounter’ it. However, I have been lucky to watch two incredible stagings of this opera in October at the Parisian Opera House and in 2017 in its concert interpretation in Bucharest by the London Philharmonic under the conduct of Vladimir Yurovsky and the French bariton Paul Gai as Oedipus.

The interest towards Oedipus is constant and its interpretations range in breath: from folkore, zulu-tales, mythologies, to art and psychoanalysis. The story resembles the quintessence about the existential device. It synthesizes human understanding of the life cycle, formulated during different periods – pagan or monotheistic. Hence, the attempt to dismiss elements from the puzzle, as the French dramargue Helene Sixous did in ‘The name of Oedipus’ by removing the incest, destroys the whole idea.

Enescu’s opera is the most traditional 20th century intepretation of all and holds the most detailed story. Enescu is not forced to look for a special idea for his only opera work. He is right when he says in “Memories” that: ‘Oedipus is relevant to each epoch, he is universal’, and also, ‘such kind of a fabula neededn’t be chosen, it choses you, it jumps at you and completely overwhelms you, holding you in a firm grip.’ In 1909 Enescu attends ‘Kind Oedipus’ at Comedie Framcais. Right after it, Edouard Lalo puts him in touch with the libretto singer Edmond Fleg, an establihed expert in elinism and an author, actually, of one more libretto for ‘Macbeth’ journal by Ernst Bloch, who is a student of Johan Isai.

Enescu spends over 20 years on the opera Oedipus and truns it into his opus magnum. The opera was completed in 1931 and premiered in 1936, which could be marked as highly successful. In his memories, the composer defines the opera as his most favourite child: ‘I’ve put into this (Oedipus) so much of my soul that at times I completely identified with my character’.

Later, in the middle 50s, the opera was staged in Brussles and Bucharest. In the 90s, it was performed in Berlin and Vienna, while in the past recent years it entered some of the European theatres. Two years ago – in 2019, the Salzburg festival presented it. The Parisian Grande Opera invited conductor Ingo Metzhmacher and Christopher Maltman, as the performer of the main part of Oedipus, both famous and brilliant musicians, justifying it again in the Parisisan performance of the opera. The directing was done by Vazhdi Muavad, a Canadian dramaturg and director of Lybian origin.

The performance at the Grande Opera, in the context of the banal narrative of the libretto and the opera, introduces an expansion of the prologue by the director, which is not present in the libretto of Fleg and the score of Enescu, but it reminds the audience, who needs it, the geneaikogy of the protagonist. With the help of a narrator in antique sryle, the story begins with Cadmus, the brother of the kidnapped by Zeus Europe, a founder of Thebes and father of Polydorus who is Laius’ grandfather. In this expanded by the director prologue, one can find the start of the drama conflict, in which the questions are always related to the ansurd destiny of Oedipus. Enescu’s score starts with the scene of the womb of the pregnant Jocasta. From that point onwards the perfomance follows the music at times with literal expressionism, at others – symbolically. It has been confirmed in an interview with the director prior to the premiere that in the centre of the spectacle is the human – the answer to the Sphynx’ puzzle. However, the interpretation and the expressionistic code, plausibly, are taken from the final scenes of the fourth act, from the last two solos of Oedipus. Before he dies, he sings: ‘I have done nothing. Did I take part in the crimes, arranged by the hand of Fate before I was born? Was there a single moment in my life of a victim that I did not oppose the gods, who led me? Didn’t I run away from Corinth due to my love for my father and respect for my mother? How could I know that when I was attacked at a crossroad, protecting myself, I would kill my father? Or, when I killed the Sphynx with the big secrets in order to save the numerous Thebans from death, how could I know they had prepared a bed of incest for me as a prize? No, I didn’t know, I didn’t know. But, do you know, Creon, by shouting my adversities, you desecrate Jocasta’s grave. You, Thebans, when you persecuted me you knew who you were persecuting. You know your saviour, your father. You are the murderers, I am innocent, innocent! My will was never upon my deeds. I defeated fate. I defeated fate!’ (free interpretation by M.B. from the French original of the libretto).

 Oedipus’ part is deliberately made static, most often frontal to the audience. The chorus scenes were also predominanly fixed, but grouped centrally or at the two ends of the stage space, thus creating the impression of kept organic proportions. The four acts differed in colour and symbolism – from the colourful and floral beginning to the storm of the water at the end – a huge platform with water on which Oedipus walks and when dying his body is fully and symmetrically reflected onto the water surface. The change of light from white to yellow not only resonate with the last lines in the opera, but it also resembles the embryonic pose of the body and its reflection into the water at the start of the opera and the womb lit in yellow. The director’s reading implied that Oedipus was born from the light of the womb as the sacrificial lamb, goes through ‘prepared’ situations – semi dark or scarcely lit – and by leaving the peroshable behind returns to the light. There was a similar scene, without the water, prior to the meeting with the Sphynx.

The dramatic moments in the opera by director Muavad were sufficiently expressive, symbolic and ritualistic. Some naturalistic scenes were also present though, such like the taking out of the baby from an external womb, the cutting of the umblical cord, the pricking of its feet, the suicide of Jocasta demostrated through the tearing off of the abundantly decorated wig of hers. The scenes of paricide, incest, suicide (Jocasta), self blinding (Oedipus) were made disticnt with the use of colour, original mise-en-scène and costumes. For instance, the colour red expressed in a somewhat fatal act – the long red scarf, which tied Jocasta and Oedipus together at their first meeting in Thebes and in the scene prior to the suicide of the heroine. The stripping off clothes of male actors, according to the director’s interpetation in the prologue, referred to spirritual or physical crime – first with Laius (towards Chrysippus) and then with Oedipus.

Most probably the director has taken into account the comments of the composer about his approach: ‘firstly, the action should develop rapidly, without any pathos, no repetitions, no obsolete lines, everything should be in motion. Secondly, the audence should not be bored… thirdly, the listener should understand the text. I am convinced that people go to opera not only to listen to its music. A good opera performance should be dynamic and have comprehensible text. ‘

In the second line of Oedipus at the end of the fourth act, saying farwell to his daughte Antigone, he says: ‘no matter how pure you are you still hold my sin. I  need to die for you…My eyes will open again for my last travel. Follow me among the flowers, moulds and ivy; follow me among the voices of the flushing springs. I will walk peacefully towards my last hour and I will die in the light’. Fleg and Enescu say everything – the fault is genealogical and ‘the price of sin is death’, atonement brings purification and life goes on.

The dorector’s decisions are inspired from the above lines. The reading of Muavad leaves the impression of balance between density and emptiness, brightness and pastelity of the colours and the specififc organic references such as the head accessories resembling plants, shrubs, grass, animals, etc.

Christipher Maltman’s Oedipus is a complete image, both dranatically and musically. The rest of the parts are mostly accompanying. Clive Bailey as Tiresias, Brian Mulligan as Creon, Adrian Timpau as Theseus, Eric Hatchett as Laius. The part of Jocasta was performed by the mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, a singer with two presigious Grand Prix awards of the audience from the International singing contest in Marmande, Framce (2001) and second award at the Miriam Helin International competition in Helsinki (2004) , as well as a remarkable career with the most elite conductors and opera troupes with a heavy dramatic repertoire and a lot of Vagner parts.

Enescu’s music is famous. It is in full admiraion of the French school of Cupren de Fore, Ravel and Debussy on the one hand and on the other, the musical theatrte, scope and expression of Vagner, especially in the finale of the opera. It is not accidental that in terms of dramatic effect the opera is mentioned second in place after the music of Vagner. Besides, Enescu does not give up on the leimotif technique. There are three leitmotifs in Oedipus: the Jocasta theme, the paricide and the duel of Oedipus with the Sphynx. There is one missing about Oedipus, but his identification is held namely by these three leitmotifs of the father, the mother and his missionary role.

With the staging of such emblematic and synthetic works in terms of text, music, and stage adaptation, I am convinced that there is something, which only the French can understand, in my opinion, and it is the harmonious anachronism. The out of canon coexistence in architecture is a Parisian merit. One of the latest staging of Don Pasquale by Donizetti, which I watched in Pale Garnie, was performed with a comic casting and décor made of pieces of contemporary symbols. And all that placed in the context of a 19th century opera.

Oedipus by Enescu, performance on 14 October 2021

Milena Bozhikova

Department of Music
Musical Contemporaneity research group
DSc, Professor

the twentieth- and the twenty-first centuries music; theory and history of music; theoretical systems; compositional techniques; Schenkerian analysis; forms of cultural interplays; identity; interdisciplinarity; composers’ personalia; work with archives; performing arts.
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