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George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Oedipe, Op. 23 - Tragédie lyrique en 4 actes et 6 tableaux (1936)
Libretto in French by Edmond Fleg.
Monte Pederson (bass-baritone) – Oedipe
Egils Silins (bass) – Tirésias
Davide Damiani (baritone) – Créon
Michael Roider (tenor) - Le berger (The Shepherd)
Goran Simić (bass) - Le grand prêtre (The High Priest)
Peter Köves (bass) – Phorbas
Walter Fink (bass) - Le veilleur (The Watchman)
Yu Chen (baritone) – Thésée
Josef Hopferwieser (tenor) – Laïos
Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo) - Jocaste/La Sphinge (The Sphinx)
Ruxandra Donose (soprano) – Antigone
Mihaela Ungureanu (mezzo) - Mérope
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera, Vienna Boys Choir, Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Stage Orchestra of the Austrian Federal Theatres/Michael Gielen
rec. live, Vienna State Opera, 29 May 1997. DDD
NAXOS 8.660163-64 [63:53 + 64:33]


I have recently been following parallel paths within Enescu’s music to those travelled by my colleague Göran Forsling: firstly in reviewing the piano sonatas played by Luiza Borac Avie), and now with Oedipe. It was interesting for me as someone who has lived with Oedipe for a few years to read Göran’s perceptive comments when coming to the work for the first time. I recommend them to you (see review).
 
This review is, in essence, an extension of my previous comments on recordings of this great opera (see article on Enescu), but perhaps a little should be mentioned about my terms of reference when it comes to Oedipe.  Although I previously knew the Electrecord recording, I first properly heard the work on 18 August 2002 in a concert performance at the Edinburgh International Festival. That night will forever remain with me, and it is impossible to describe to those who were not there the impression made by the music, the conductor (Cristian Mandeal) or several of the singers.  In April/May 2004 I travelled to Berlin for two staged performances (the same production as used in Vienna from which the Naxos recording derives), Mandeal again conducted. Mandeal also conducted for a run of seven performances in Cagliari during January 2005, and I attended the final performance of that run. To these must be added information gleaned from Enescu’s own conversations with Bernard Gavoty (pub. Flammarion, Paris 1955), Noel Malcolm’s book on Enescu (Toccata Press) and John Gritten’s book on Constantin Silvestri (Kitzinger).
 
The Naxos release listed above faces only one viable commercial rival, featuring forces from Monte-Carlo under the baton of Lawrence Foster (EMI CDS 7 54011 2, or CDCB 54011 in the USA). There is a Romanian language version on Electrecord and a number of off-air broadcasts that the motivated reader may discover through unofficial channels. I will discuss these at the end of my review of the Naxos set.
 
Naxos and EMI
Three years ago Klaus Heymann (CEO, Naxos) revealed to me via email his desire to release a recording of Enescu’s Oedipe, describing it very much as a “pet project” of his, and he is a man of his word. Given the prohibitive cost of a new studio recording, it is perhaps understandable therefore that Naxos have opted to issue one from the archives of the Vienna State Opera, where the work has received several outings in recent years. This recording is a monument also to the art to Monte Pederson, the American bass-baritone who notably assumed the title role a few times - in Vienna and Bucharest - prior to his death from cancer in 2001. He is an artist too little represented on disc, considering his innate musicality and dramatic sensibilities.
 
This performance in general terms is very different from that conducted by Foster on EMI. Foster’s view is to an extent a labour of love and it manages to communicate much of the beauty within Enescu’s score, but following the experience of live performances I find it short on dramatic punch.  However Gielen’s view concentrates on the extremities within the writing both in sonic terms and also in tempo. The latter contributes in part to the shorter playing time of his version when compared to Foster’s. Although the Viennese forces play and sing with commitment one can sense that perhaps the music was not yet totally coming naturally to them, and, as ever with live recordings, stage movements obscure details of orchestration that one sorely misses when one is aware of their presence from the score or Foster’s reading. I should add that I consulted my facsimile of Enescu’s original manuscript whilst listening and found key textures that Enescu was at pains to emphasise wanting.
 
Comparing the renditions of the title role given by Pederson and van Dam one finds that if anything Pederson undersings the part. However, given the considerable demands of the role to produce singing at every conceivable dynamic marking, with quarter and three-quarter tones required at moments of absolute stress alongside vocalisations it is not surprising that Pederson is not alone in often husbanding his resources when it comes to a complete performance. Certainly Esa Ruuttunen did this during the first performance I saw in Berlin – he gave more freely to the drama in the second. Even in the studio, where retakes were possible, van Dam on occasion holds back more than I would like, but this perhaps was caused by Foster’s direction to an extent. Incidentally, Van Dam replaced the previously engaged Samuel Ramey, and only agreed to the recording after a two year period of study with the score.
 
The Naxos recording is notable for some other roles too. Marjana Lipovšek reprises the role of the Sphinx, which she took for Foster, and here doubles it with that of Jocaste. That her voice has aged since Foster’s recording was made is audible, but so too is the appreciable depth of the performance she turns in. The freedom of the live performance allows enough room for her to invest the Sphinx’s ‘icy white’ shrieks with truly spine-chilling tone. Romanians Mihaela Ungureanu and Ruxandra Donose acquit themselves with honour, Donose especially handling her telling contribution to the final act magnificently. Many of the other roles are allotted to basses, and Walter Fink’s Watchman takes the laurels amongst the several present. Throughout the French diction of the cast is adequate, although at times indistinct when it compared with the clarity of EMI’s studio recording.
 
So as far as commercial releases are concerned it’s a choice that might well be made on any number of grounds: according to budget; supporting material, completeness or sound quality. Naxos comes in at half EMI’s price but their synopsis cannot compete with EMI’s full notes and libretto – which will be needed if you come to the work for the first time. EMI includes the whole score whereas the Naxos version suffers several cuts and EMI wins hands down on sound quality. If it’s immediacy in drama you’re after rather than a kind of pseudo-Debussian orchestral gloss, Naxos is the choice. When all’s said and done Naxos provides a decent starting point. Given that both sets reward musically in their own ways, I would urge the interested to investigate the other over time also.
 
Electrecord and off-air broadcasts
Electrecord’s version is in Romanian, as opposed to the original French, and in translation certain textual changes were made - apparently at the request of Communist Party officials - that not only alter the nature of what is sung but the direction of the action itself. That said, anyone unaware of this is unlikely to be overly troubled. The Bucharest Opera forces are conducted by Brediceanu, with David Ohanesian in the title role. Why Brediceanu conducted the recording at all is still something of a mystery, given that Constantin Silvestri was originally to do so, and conducted painstaking rehearsals for some time prior to his replacement. Dedicated though Brediceanu is, there can be little doubt that the recording owes a fair measure of its glory to Silvestri’s input. I regret the fact that politics seemingly has cruelly robbed us of what would have almost certainly been a magnificent reading. The one we have though displays the quality of the Bucharest National Opera at that time (1964), with each role taken by a star soloist: Dan Iordachescu’s Creon stands out as worthy of particular note, as does Elena Cernai’s Jocaste. But vocally it is David Ohanesian in the title role that carries all before him here: a great bass-baritone caught in his absolute prime.
 
Although I have not heard it, I have heard reports of a recording existing of a seemingly excellent live performance from the Lucerne Festival given in August 1981. Romanian forces were once again conducted by Brediceanu, with Ohanesian still in the title role, this time singing in French. The major drawback of the performance, I gather, was the cutting of Act 2, Scene 1. Nonetheless I hope to make the acquaintance of this recording some day, and would welcome information from any readers who know any more about it.
 
Orchestre Radio-Symphonique de France/Charles Bruck – Radio France 1955
This may be in some respects the best recording of Oedipe to date. Conducted by Romanian born Charles Bruck – a much under-rated conductor - the reading is as secure technically as that achieved by Foster, but Bruck phrases with greater urgency at every turn.  
 
Bruck’s Oedipe is Xavier Depraz who is resplendent in the role. I prefer him to Foster’s van Dam, although Depraz does not have van Dam's tonal allure – and there are times in the opera I wish van Dam had less beauty and more punch in his voice.  Other performances for Bruck worth mention include the blood-curdling Sphinx of Rita Gorr who also sang Jocaste at the Monnaie in Brussels. Bruck's performance features some singers from the 1936 premiere of the work, one in the role he created: Henri Medus as the Watchman. Others are in different roles: Louis Noguera was a Theban at the premiere but sings Phorbas for Bruck, Pierre Froumenty was Créon at the premiere but under Bruck sings the High Priest. Bruck's performance carries the advantage of an all-native French cast featuring principals from the Paris Opera at that time: Jean Giraudeau (the Shepherd), André Vessières (Tiresias), to name but two. Alas, Bruck’s recording allows serious cuts and the playing of the Orchestre Radio-Symphonique is less than ideal, though it is committed.  The sound is also a factor, but given the fact it emanates from radio sources, for its age it is remarkably full and clear.
 
BBC Scottish SO / Mandeal – Edinburgh 2002 – broadcast by the BBC
I mentioned above the indelible effect that this performance had on me, and being my first true encounter with the work it is in some ways the one that all others measure up against for me. Aside from the magnificent Mandeal, the chief protagonists to note are John Relyea’s assumption of the title role. There could hardly have been a vocal facet he left unexploited in bringing the music to life, and in his effort seemed to push himself to the very edge of his abilities, but was it ever worth it. Marius Brenciu’s telling rendition of the shepherd’s role was given with piquancy of tone in impeccable French, whilst Anna Burford and Janice Watson were memorable as Mérope and Antigone respectively. 
 
Teatro Lirico di Cagliari / Mandeal – Cagliari 2005 – broadcast by RAI Tre
Listening to off-air broadcasts of the Edinburgh and Cagliari performances, what is most striking is precisely the quality I find most lacking in Foster’s studio recording: immediacy of impact. Mandeal draws this from orchestra, chorus and soloists and views all four acts as an arch of inevitability for Oedipe from birth to death. Within this he does not neglect detail, and is unafraid to move from the slightest subtlety of line to the unleashing of the tremendous power inherent in the score. Stefan Ignat shows that he is a bass-baritone growing into the title role, though lapses in linguistic fluency let him down at times. Another Romanian, Alexandru Agache, proves a rich and menacing Créon.
 
When writing last year I commented that: “There could be no greater mark of respect for Enescu than to capture Mandeal’s view of this score”.  Apparently a video DVD was made from the production in Cagliari – perhaps a sufficiently far-sighted company will seek to licence this from the opera house for public release. Given that Naxos have released the Vienna archive audio recording, this DVD seems the only way that Mandeal’s vision of this great work might at last become officially publicly available. Until then, do not resist any further live performances he may conduct.
 
Evan Dickerson

see also review by Göran Forsling
 

 

 



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