Modernist Oedipus: A New Production of Georges Enesco’s Œdipe at the Paris Opéra

Still from a performance of Œdipe at Paris National Opéra.

Photo: Elisa Haberer / OnP

This season, the Paris Opéra opened with the seminal work of Romania’s national composer, Georges Enesco (1881-1955). Enesco (Enescu, as he was born) holds a place in his country’s cultural tradition so strong that he features on Romania’s national currency and gives his name to its leading philharmonia and national classical music festival. One might ask, however, whether Enesco, whose dates placed him on the cusp of cultural modernism, was more a “European” composer than a strictly Romanian one.

Identified as a musical prodigy in early childhood, Enesco left Romania at age seven for Vienna to study at its Conservatory and then proceeded, at fourteen, to Paris, where he continued his studies and later taught, performed as a violinist and pianist, and composed. Whilst Romanian folk motifs packed his early compositions, by the time he composed his only opera Œdipe, which premiered in Paris in 1936, his work was suffused in a late Romantic fusion of post-Wagnerian expressionism and impressionistic symbolism of the French composers around whom Enesco came of age, including Debussy, Fauré, and Ravel.

Œdipe did not find its way to Romania until 1958, where it premiered three years after Enesco’s death. Wartime disruption did little for innovative musical performance in Eastern Europe, and the postwar Stalinism imposed on the country had little time for a de facto émigré composer whose work evoked Western “decadence.” Only in the post-Stalin thaw period, which witnessed Romanian assertions of political independence within the communist bloc, did Enesco posthumously ascend into the national pantheon. 

Almost totally forgotten in the West, Œdipe returns to the Paris Opéra for the first time since its premiere, in this new production by the émigré Lebanese director Wajdi Mouawad. Set to a libretto by the French-Jewish modernist playwright Edmond Fleg, the plot of Œdipe follows Sophocles’s foundational Oedipus Rex, but with a distinctly modernist twist. In the original ancient drama, Oedipus accepts his grim fate, hopes the best for his heirs, and resigns himself to death, with the somber final line, “No man is happy until he is dead,” uttered after he leaves the stage. In Enesco’s opera, however, the arc of Œdipe’s life peaks at the very end, where, to a rush of lush, cathartic orchestration recalling Richard Strauss’s best moments, he achieves self-realization and proclaims that while fate will have its way, he is not at fault. “I didn’t do anything. Did I have a part in the crimes that Fate ordained when I was born?” he asks, “I am innocent, innocent, innocent! I have conquered destiny!”

Photo: Elisa Haberer / OnP

This retelling is certainly a unique departure from the fatalism of the ancients, but it grasps the sensibilities behind the notion of fashioning one’s own moral imperatives in what came to be called existentialist thought. It is Œdipe’s resistance to the gods and to his own predestination that matters more than anything else. It is a fine message to be revived in a Europe that resembles an ever-present surveillance regime more than an ever-closer union. Are we the masters of our fate in an increasingly pre-ordained universe? Masked Frenchmen reaching for their passes sanitaires to do just about anything, including attend the opera, may well want to know.

It is unclear that Mouawad has our current existential crisis in mind, however. His production is imaginative, with Emmanuel Clolus’s heavily stylized sets relying on abstract columns to suggest indoor settings and geometric shapes outdoor places. But the visuals lack any significant message that complements the text, which tends to be treated as just another iteration on the Oedipus tale. Part of this missed opportunity registered before a note of music was sounded—the production opens with a lengthy pantomime tracing the sordid reasons for the curse on the ruling house of Thebes, whose original sin was Oedipus’s father’s rape of his nephew, who later committed suicide in a tragedy that caused the gods to warn the perpetrator in vain never to have children of his own lest he suffer lethal consequences at their hands. This addition was neither graphic nor violent, but merely boring and superfluous.

Emmanuelle Thomas’s costumes are a fanciful distraction. Most characters wear variants of modern clothes with headdresses featuring various forms of plant life and, among the chorus only, masks. No one ever does much, in the manner of Greek tragedy that briefly seized modernist directors over a century ago, leaving the dramatic performance rather dull between seminal moments of plot development. Œdipe’s birth, his slaying of the Sphinx, and his death/revelation scene were the opera’s worthiest moments.

Fortunately, the soloists breathed (maskless) life into their roles and delivered an admirable effort. English baritone Christopher Maltman has come a long way since his Mozart days, and an attractive darkening of the voice now allows him to take on Œdipe’s low bass-baritone part. He sang with unflagging power right up to his decisive final scene, some three hours after the curtain went up. Next to his omnipresent character, all the other roles were supporting parts, but here, too, the Opéra marshalled impressive talent. Ekaterina Gubanova, the fine Russian mezzo-soprano, gave a compelling reading of Jocaste, Œdipe’s mother and accidental bride. Anne Sophie von Otter’s Mérope was a luxury casting decision. The talented baritone Brian Mulligan did well as Créon, and Laurent Naouri’s Grand Priest held the stage in his moments. Ingo Metzmacher led a well-paced performance of Enesco’s worthy score, which is an enjoyable alternative to Igor Stravinsky’s more jarring approach to the Oedipus legend.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.


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