Oedipe [Opera in four acts to a French libretto by Edmond Fleg]
Oedipe Monte Pederson
Tirésias Egils Silins
Créon Davide Damiani
The Shepherd Michael Roider
The High Priest Goran Simić
Phorbas Peter Köves
The Watchman Walter Fink
Thésée Yu Chen
Laïos Josef Hopferwieser
Jocaste / The Sphinx Marjana Lipovek
Antigone Ruxandra Donose
Mérope Mihaela Ungureanu
Vienna Boys Choir
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Stage Orchestra of the Austrian Federal Theatres
Recorded live at the Vienna State Opera on 29 May 1997
Reviewed by: Michael Quinn
Reviewed: April 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.660163-64
Duration: 2 hours 8 minutes
George Enescu’s tragédie lyrique, “Oedipe”, his only opera, has not fared as well on disc (or, indeed, in the opera house) as the acclaim afforded its first night at the Paris Opéra in 1936 might, in retrospect, have suggested. Despite the enthusiastic reception it disappeared almost immediately from view, a second production unseen for two decades, a first recording delayed until 1964. That 42-year-old, Mihai Brediceanu-conducted performance (sung in Romanian, though poet Edmond Fleg’s original libretto is in French) is still available on the Electrecord label, although you may find it something of a struggle to track down. It is, however, worth the pursuit for musical as well as historical reasons. The only other recording – Lawrence Foster’s well-received 1989 EMI set from Monte Carlo – dates from a full quarter-century later, but that is currently, regrettably, out of the catalogue.
This ‘new’ recording of a 1996 Deutsche Oper and Vienna State Opera co-production is taken from Austrian Radio broadcast tapes of the first night in Vienna the following season and has the benefit of strong central performances, committed conducting and good modern sound, but be warned: it is also severely cut. Where Brediceanu took an all-encompassing 160 minutes and Foster a marginally swifter 157 minutes, this Naxos offering romps in at a brisk 128 minutes – a discrepancy that Gielen’s swiftly paced reading doesn’t alone wholly account for.
A startling, vividly realised work, “Oedipe” expands on Sophocles’s ancient tragedy to tell its eponymous protagonist’s life story in four acts, each shot through with striking musical atmospheres aromatically peppered with a plethora of telling leitmotifs. The much-reworked score’s ability to evoke mood and emotion owes something to Debussy’s earlier “Pelléas et Mélisande”, but its muscularity and musically-compacted intensity is uniquely Enescu’s own.
Gielen does much to accommodate the static quality of what is, essentially, a series of protracted tableaux (Act II, depicting Oedipus’s fateful journey from Corinth to Thebes, the singular exception), vividly underlining the drama of the narrative, etching into sharp relief the all-too rare lyrical moments in this often emotionally coruscating music. Gielen’s marshalling of the score as it relentlessly accumulates and eventually unleashes terrifying energy (at Oedipus’s horrific self-blinding late in Act II) is a disturbing high point of this appropriately intense and exhausting recording. A note of praise, too, for Gielen’s Viennese players, who deal with the music’s stygian murk and idiomatic complexity with nimble eloquence, driving determinedly forward (albeit occasionally a touch too emphatically) from first note to last without ever sacrificing character.
But it is on individual performances that the laurels of this budget-price recording rest. In the title role, bass-baritone Monte Pederson – the only contributor to follow the Götz Friedrich-directed production from its Berlin opening to its Vienna revival – takes his cue from Wagner rather than Debussy to anchor the production in brute, flesh, blood and bones reality. If anything, and certainly compared to José van Dam on the EMI set, he underplays the role, perhaps too much so in places; a consequence, perhaps, of this being a live, caught on the wing snapshot rather than a studio recording. Even so, he leaves the listener with a sense of afflicted corporeality that leeches into and lingers troublingly in the imagination. That both Pederson and Friedrich died within a year of each other at the turn of the century is a huge loss to contemporary opera.
Coming close to stealing Pederson’s limelight is mezzo Marjana Lipovšek, double-cast as Jocaste and an especially vivid, chill-inducing Sphinx, with Egils Silins’s blind but all-seeing Tirésias and Walter Fink’s grounded Watchman both providing strong vocal anchors. Plaudits, too, for the Antigone of Ruxandra Donose, whose difficult late entry is perfectly pitched.
This being a Naxos recording, its price is its own recommendation, but some will find a synopsis (albeit commendably detailed) a poor substitute for a full libretto with a work as unfamiliar and challenging as this. That aside, this is a well-framed recording driven along by strong performances and conducting in very good sound. On its own, recommendable, terms it makes a strong case for a work deserving of far greater attention.