Terracotta Oedipe (ROH, 26 May 2016)
This is such a serious theme that, when the curtain fell at the end of the 4th act, I was out of words. The last time I felt anything like this was at the end of Die Frau ohne Schatten but even Strauss isn’t quite as relentless in big theme seriousness. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing in itself, just that it’s no easy task talking about human condition vs. fate.
Oedipe: Johan Reuter
Tirésias: John Tomlinson
Antigone: Sophie Bevan
Mérope: Claudia Huckle
Jocaste: Sarah Connolly
The Sphinx: Marie-Nicole Lemieux
A Shepherd: Alan Oke
The Theban High Priest: Nicolas Courjal
Laïos: Hubert Francis
Créon: Samuel Youn
Phorbas: In Sung Sim
The Watcher: Stefan Kocan
Thésée: Samuel Dale Johnson
Theban Woman: Lauren Fagan
Conductor: Leo Hussain | Orchestra and Choir of the ROH
Directors: Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco | production originally seen at La Monnaie, Brussels
Don’t get me wrong, the orchestration isn’t anywhere as dense as in Strauss. In fact it’s most often than not very light; flutes, oboes, timpani and double basses make their respective points on their own, having been chosen for their specific moments with great emotional accuracy. The singing – in keeping with its Ancient Greek theme – is more Monteverdi than Verdi. It’s recitative throughout. Perhaps not so much hard to sing as hard to keep the voice tuned to the very intense emotions that just do not let up. I don’t know how the singers coped but I was completely drained by the end.
On the other hand, thank you Enescu and Edmond Fleg for making me get closer to understanding Greek tragedy. I have always had a resistance to ancient flailings about fate and gods.
Now I’m not very familiar with Oedipe (having only heard it once before the performance) but I am fairly sure I’m not wrong in saying Maestro Hussain (who also conducted the original La Monnaie run) did a brilliant job conducting this. It just felt right. He kept a very light and gentle handle on it, allowing the sparse orchestration to breathe and speak for itself. The tempi felt right in insinuating the drama rather than hammering it.
The opera sprang from a time when film soundtracks were coming into their own and the score does often feel cinematic. Yet at the same time it’s never grand, which at first felt anticlimatic. On deeper consideration, this choice brought forward human frailty. When key moments in the plot were called out by characters it was disarmingly simple where in something like Verdi or Wagner the singer would crank the fff out to 11 and the entire orchestra would be underlining it in red pen. Here we had just a pitifully bewildered human cry. If Enescu were a writer, he would surprise you mainly by his keen powers of observation of ever changing moods in his characters, and by his affection for them. It’s a very atmospheric kind of thing; in the same ballpark as last year’s Krol Roger and this year’s Akhnaten but heavier than either in scope.
You simply can’t sit there for 3 hours and not start giving a thought or two to Oedipe and to his conundrum. What the hell is this deal with him killing his father and sleeping with his mother, right? We’re helpfully (thank you, libretto) told from the beginning that it was his father’s fault all along. Whew, a bit better already. The gods told him in his sleep that he was not to have any children, yet he done got married and did what? Procreated. So the gods punished him and his entire family.
That’s very harsh until you start thinking that gods = nature might’ve forbidden him for his own good. Like if you’re told not to eat cake because you’re diabetic and you think people are mean to you and don’t want you to satisfy a perfectly normal craving. Or in his case the necessity for his dinasty to go on and prevent civil war in his kingdom. He has a point but so do the gods. The only thing when gods are involved is that it always feels like they randomly punish humans and that they could stop the misery and bloodshed if they wanted to yet they’re sadistic little dicks.
But the Sphinx later makes it plain that even gods are at the mercy of fate. Ok, now we’re talking. So the gods had a point, only they didn’t explain it all over a cuppa, just went ahead and issued a decree during Laios’ sleeptime. That’s a bit unprofessional.
So in this context it appears that Oedipe is the hero who raises against fate, something that even the gods dared not undertake. This is commendable. At the end he asks “have I not tried my best, even when fate tricked me? So am I not decent after all and have I not punished myself even for things that were decided before my birth?” Yes, he does make a compelling point, reason for which he “wins” in the end. It’s just a shame that so many lives are ruined along the way. But maybe the point is that humans need to raise against fate, otherwise we’re doomed to a life of misery.
The singing-acting. Johan Reuter naturally carried the show. Because there’s so much recit and because it’s SERIOUS ISSUE land, whoever sings Oedipe needs serious acting chops. This is an opera where singing and acting are entwined. Reuter was very good, constantly on, riveting through the show by covering a lot of emotional ground. He was believably confused at the beginning, well intentioned once his fate transpires, “a good leader” whilst in charge and heroically human in the end.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the Sphinx had the most memorable stint after Oedipe. The Sphinx is here a strange combo of bomber and demented hippie – or at least that’s what her patchwork costume said to me. Lemieux didn’t need to be realistic, she just had to arise from her (the bomber’s) slumber and belittle Oedipe a bit then collapse amidst deranged cackling. That Sphinx, eh? I liked the OTT way in which she arose and the cackle was pretty mad (also her whole part seemed hard to sing as it requires quite a bit of range); it carried all the way to the middle of the Amphitheatre. Also, as a native speaker, she did justice to the French language, which I can’t say was a quality adhered to by all (but then when is it, unless the entire cast is French?).
I couldn’t find a weak link but the others didn’t really have enough to sink (or lose) their teeth in (perhaps except for John Tomlinson’s Tirésias who I thought came off more well intentioned than you’d expect an ancient prophet to be). The ROH Choir was still a bit funny.
It took me over a week to write about because I’m still not sure I can do justice to everything thrown at us. There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of it is very interesting, some of it is also very good, but I think there was enough that went over my head (musically and otherwise). I still am not quite sure what I think about the Oedipus complex (psychologically speaking), though I’m glad this has helped me cover the ground on the literary/mythical side – at least as seen through 20th century eyes. It’s one of those things that leaves you unsettled and with thoughts bubbling under the surface.