Thursday, July 7, 2016

Geroge Enescu's "Ultimate Oedipus"

The current issue of The New York Review includes an article by Fintan O'Toole about the Royal Opera House production of George Enescu's Œdipe, which concluded its run at the Royal Opera House at the beginning of last month. On this side of the pond, Enescu used to be known almost entirely for the first of his Romanian rhapsodies. However, this music tended to find itself more in pops settings, rather than more formal concert programming. That presence has pretty much faded, as has its programming on classical radio stations that seem more interested in providing background music than in appealing to serious listeners. Enescu's Wikipedia page cites the appearance of such folk material in Œdipe, but this is a minor element of surface structure that barely signifies in the overall scheme of the opera.

Indeed, it is that scheme that distinguishes Enescu's approach to the Oedipus myth from just about all others. This is why the headline for O'Toole's article calls it "The Ultimate Oedipus at the Opera." This is no mere hyperbole. Enescu worked from a libretto (in French) by Edmond Fleg that structured the opera in four acts, drawing upon Sophocles for only the last two, which account for Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. The first half of the opera, on the other hand, plays out just about all of the details of backstory that are only related retrospectively by Sophocles' characters. On the basis of O'Toole's account, the only real "folk" element in the score comes at the very beginning with the celebration of Oedipus' birth.

O'Toole is primarily the Literary Editor of The Irish Times, suggesting that his ability to account for Enescu's music was overshadowed by his admiration for the sophistication of Fleg's libretto. There seem to be a few recordings available to consult for those interested in the music. However, O'Toole leaves the impression that the real value of the music resides in its relationship with the dramatic actions taking place on stage. It is unlikely that there is any good substitute for a performance experience and probably even less likely that an American opera company will have both the resources and the will to import the Royal Opera House production, which was first presented at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2011. That would be unfortunate, since this is the work of two directors, Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, who are clearly more interested in the drama itself, rather than in parading there own egos through outrageous innovations that do little to serve the narrative.

The only alternative would be a video distribution, an approach that the Royal Opera has taken successfully in the past. This would help the curious to get beyond O'Toole's somewhat fumbling attempts to account for why this integration of music and drama is so compelling. His biggest fumble comes from trying to explain the relationship in terms of signal and noise, appealing to technical terms, whose meaning he does not quite grasp. He is at his best in trying to explain how the music comments on the narrative, rather than simply setting it. However, his text begs for auditory examples, which are beyond the scope of print journalism. We can only hope that today's technology will provide a wider audience the opportunity to experience what is really going on in this opera that seems to have so much imaginative thinking behind it.

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