My eyes! My eyes! (Oedipe in Frankfurt)

What’s a pessimistic old director to do when the opera he or she is directing has an ending that is just too damn redemptive? If you’re Hans Neuenfels and are dealing with George Enescu’s Oedipe, a production currently at the Oper Frankfurt, you chop off the optimistic last act. The result is a tight and well-paced tragedy, set to Enescu’s unique voice.

George Enescu, Oedipe. Oper Frankfurt, 1.3.2014, production by Hans Neuenfels, conducted by Alexander Liebreich with Simon Neal (Oedipus), Magnús Baldvinsson (Tiresias), Dietrich Volle (Creon), Michael McCown (Shepherd), Kihwan Sim (Phorbas), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Jokaste), Katharina Magiera (Sphinx)

Enescu’s score (premiered 1936) is more contrapuntal and solid than many of its contemporaries (say, Szymanowski) and its vocabulary is too wide to easily describe. The chorus plays an important role, there are some colorful effects (whip, musical saw, thunder, etc.), some of it is influenced by folk music, sometimes it sounds like Strauss, and I think I heard some quarter tones. Sometimes there is so much going on that it’s hard to tell where to listen–the aural equivalent of Where’s Waldo. The vocal writing isn’t particularly grateful and the orchestra is the star attraction, but the music does keep the story moving inexorably forward. Enescu apparently specified that the opera should be performed in the local language, which was followed here. The German was fairly intelligible, though the writing can be thick. You can hear a little of the score in the video at the end of this review.

Neuenfels tends to be attracted to and do well with these ambiguously modern settings of ancient stories–see also both his Medea in Corintho and König Kandaules. While many people  say they would not like to encounter an unfamiliar opera in a production by a Regietheater director like Neuenfels, I don’t think that problem ever came up for me in any of these performances. (Enescu’s opera was probably familiar to a few not-me audience members, but in popularity terms all three are a long way from La traviata.) Neuenfels’s telling of the story is inextricable from his interpretation of it, and the result is elegant, insightful, and perfectly clear without being too obvious–particularly so in Oedipe, which I liked the most out of these three.

Rifail Ajdarpasic’s set frames the action in chalkboards full of physics equations and mathematical jottings, preparing the action’s portrayal of Oedipe as a kind of scientist or archeaologist. In the opening, he gets to watch himself being born–hatched from an egg, in fact. While he is, evidently, investigating the notion of free will, he seems quite suggestible himself: the revelation of his dire fate is enough for him to give his supposed mother a big kiss on the lips.

This should indicate that Edmund Fleg’s libretto is no normal Oedipus: it tells the title character’s whole biography, not just the last part (or, in this production, up to the eye-gouging). He goes to Corinth, he plays Twenty Questions with the Sphinx, and he returns to Thebes. The big cut gives the opera a strikingly symmetrical structure, with Oedipe’s final Act 3 denouement echoing the revelations of Act 1. Simultaneously, the gender ambiguity of the extravagant costumes (Tiresias seems to be heading towards feminity a little bit early, or late (?), but he is joined by the whole chorus) suggests Freudian paths–we are, after all, dealing with the ur-Complex. Neither opera nor production offers any pat lieto fine, but one suspects that Oedipe’s triumphant declaration to the Sphinx that man is greater than fate may have been off base.

I was very impressed by the overall level of the Oper Frankfurt’s orchestra and ensemble of singers, as well as Alexander Liebreich’s conducting. (I’d never visited this opera house before.) I was sitting right up in the front and heard a good deal of the orchestra, which (though I say this without any detailed knowledge of the score) sounded very accurate and balanced. Baritone Simon Neal made a suitably intense and tortured Oedipe, almost exacerbated by his outwardly normal appearance. I particularly liked Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Jokaste), who has a very rich and even mezzo. The Sphinx’s crazy scene is really too low for Katharina Magiera, who sounded like she’d borrowed her lower notes from Marlene Dietrich, but she vamped with committment. Supporting roles were also strong.

I hope we can hear this opera more often. Has Leon Botstein seriously not done this one yet?


More photos (all copyright Monika Rittershaus): 

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