Monday, January 6, 2014

Ich sehe klar: Enescu's Oedipe in Frankfurt

Oedipus and the Thebans Photo © Oper Frankfurt/Monika Rittershaus
On Friday, I went to Oper Frankfurt's run of Georg Enescu's rarely performed and richly textured Oedipe (synopsis here.) Hans Neuenfels' powerful new production created suspense and ambiguity in this most famous of stories about inevitability. (The fourth act, in which Enescu finds redemption for Sophocles' tragic protagonist, is omitted here.) The space in which the drama takes place is enclosed with layers of equation-covered blackboards which Oedipus tries to read like hieroglyphs. We see Oedipus first thus: as a grown man, an academic deciphering mysteries of systems and probabilities, an observer of the scene in Laios' palace. The cradle is an egg--symbol of life--which remains mysterious and unnamed. But the apparent order praised by the uniformly clad chorus is disrupted by prophecy, and Oedipus resolves to act: to enter the story, rather than observing it; a parallel impulse for the researcher as for the warrior who desires freedom from his fate. But this quest for autonomy is impeded not least by social impulses towards categorization: Shepherd, Priest, King. Costumes from different periods of history (notably in Jocasta's gowns) allude to this dangerous tendency. Even the Erinnye- like rockers who appear to resist control abet the bullying cruelty of Laios. One of the production's most chilling moments is when, as the plagued Thebans beg their king for aid, for an answer to their questions, for an end to their pain, Oedipus finds himself back in a lecture hall, equations crowding the walls, the Thebans crowded onto benches, and he himself powerless in a white coat by the gleaming metal gurney which is only temporarily without the burden of a corpse. But the production does not insist that freedom is illusory; the highly charged interactions between Oedipus and Merope raise the question of whether Tiresias' prophecy functions with the power of suggestion, or indeed is based on insight into character. Is it Oedipus' obsession with fate that drives him, rather than the fate itself? The opera's central question--how free are we?--hangs painfully suspended.

In listening to Enescu's only opera on CD, I found its density and its many contrasts rather overwhelming. Experiencing the work in performance, however, revealed how closely stage and pit are  bound together by the score, on which Enescu worked for longer than Oedipus reigned in Thebes. Pacing and balance were well-handled by conductor Alexander Liebreich, and the musical themes (and variations thereon) emerged strongly. Enescu's music I found richly expressive, as well as of richly varied texture, from spare, unearthly commentary from percussion and woodwinds to dark, sweeping orchestral passages of near-Straussian fullness. The reappearance and reworking of motifs, in the strong performance of the Frankfurt orchestra, gave a sense of ominous propulsion to the linked episodes of the drama.

Looking for meaning: Neal as Oedipus
Photo © Oper Frankfurt/Monika Rittershaus
The vocal performances were also strong. While the chorus's entrances could occasionally have been sharper, they sang with impressive range in dynamics and expression, as well as clear use of the German text. In smaller roles, Jenny Carlstedt sang Merope with a clear and sensual soprano, and made a poignant impression in her brief scene; the punk rock watchman of Andreas Bauer immediately commanded attention with his full bass. Baritone Dietrich Volle showed good presence and expressive vocal color in the role of Creon, here clad in a gold dress, a clear outsider in Laios' kingdom. Magnús Baldvinsson, as the prophet Tiresias, sounded somewhat grainy but was dramatically excellent. Also compelling was the Sphinx of Katherina Magiera, who impressed with the eerie coloring of her voice and the steadiness of her high notes.The Phorbas of Kihwan Sim was deeply touching, especially in his final scene, with good phrasing and use of text; Sim was received with deserved enthusiasm by the audience. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, with a rich and supple mezzo, gave a dramatically nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of the unfortunate Jocasta. The role of Oedipus ranges from Sprechstimme exclamations to passages of legato introspection or heroically ringing phrases; Simon Neal impressed with both his stamina and his sensitivity in the title role, giving a performance of gradually-building intensity, and remarkable cumulative power. In the end, it is suggested, actions--however doomed--undertaken in the hope of achieving good have their own nobility.

Curtain call photos:
Volle und Bauer (Creon und Wächter)

Baldvinsson and Sim (Tiresias and Phorbas)

Carlstedt and Magiera (Merope and the Sphinx)

Baumgartner and Neal (Jocasta and Oedipus)


  1. I wish there were many more opportunities to see works like this rather than the apparently endless diet of Bohemes and Traviatas.

    1. Amen to that! Bohème and Traviata deserve better than careless revivals; and there are so many works, like this one, that deserve to be more than rarities.


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