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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.
Stefan Ignat (bass-baritone) – Oedipe
Ricardo Herrera (bass) – Tirésias
Bradley Robinson (baritone) – Créon
Harold Gray Meers (tenor) - Le berger (The Shepherd)
Michael York (bass) - Le grand prêtre (The High Priest)
Michael York (bass) – Phorbas
Ricardo Herrera (bass) - Le veilleur (The Watchman)
Ben Jones (baritone) – Thésée
Darren T. Anderson (tenor) – Laïos
Ashmani Jha (mezzo) – Jocaste
Stephanie Chigas (mezzo) – La Sphinge (The Sphinx)
Jan Patrice Helms (soprano) – Antigone
Jennifer Proulx (mezzo) - Mérope
University of Illinois Chamber Singers
Sinfonia da Camera, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign/Ian Hobson
rec. live, 15 October 2005, Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. DDD.
ALBANY TROY861/62 [74.31 + 71.37]

 

This set presents the North American premiere of Enescu’s great opera and is taken from a concert performance given at the University of Illinois in October 2005.

Ian Hobson, the conductor, has some experience in Enescu’s work both on the podium and also at the keyboard. Hobson won First Prize at the 1981 Leeds International Piano Competition, and frequently plays Enescu’s own arrangement of the First Romanian Fantasy. Recently (2006) at Wigmore Hall, London he audaciously followed Liszt’s B minor sonata with it. The other experienced Enescu interpreter present in the pit with Hobson is violinist Sherban Lupu, here taking the role of concertmaster. A Professor at the University of Illinois, Lupu founded the Enescu String Ensemble there. Together violinist and Ensemble recorded vital versions of some lesser-known Enescu works for Romanian Radio in 2005; so there is clearly some history of Enescu performance at the University of Illinois. Lesser-known chamber works are one thing, the challenge of Oedipe is entirely another.

Those that are interested in my views on the other commercial and off-air recordings of live performances should visit the links given at the foot of the review. I will keep my comments from now on focused on the present recording.

The orchestra and chorus are faithfully recorded. The Act I prelude announces a reading that is not totally possessed from the first with a feeling of the inevitable. If the orchestra and chorus had been of greater numbers then no doubt the weight of tone that Enescu’s writing calls for at mp dynamic could have been realised with greater certainty. Hobson, understandably given that this was the first performance by these forces, is cautious in pacing individual phrases, but when things take fire and gather momentum his reading is remarkably involving.

To the best of my knowledge only one of the singers, Stefan Ignat, had previously sung the role assigned him in the opera. All the other singers are new to me. There are times when one feels Ignat’s involvement tellingly in proceedings – Act II, scene 1 during the brutal encounter with Laios, or scene 3 in the encounter with the Sphinx; later in Act III he is baleful and haughty by turns – but his downfall is the frequently indistinct pronunciation of text, a point I noted on hearing him in the role in Cagliari, Italy in January 2005. That said, there is no doubting his vocal commitment and he particularly seems to relish the moments of personal anguish within the role.

The choice of an ideal singer for the title role is a hard one, given that it’s one of the toughest, most unrelenting of all bass-baritone parts ever written. Xavier Depraz (recorded under Charles Bruck), David Ohanesian (recorded under Brediceanu), Josè van Dam (recorded under Foster), or Esa Ruutennen and John Relyea (in performance under Mandeal) all gave their own individual vocal weights to it. To my ears Oedipe the role is more convincing with a singer who is stronger as a bass than a baritone – which does not map onto Ignat’s voice entirely – but whatever the strength of the singer he must be able to cope well with high baritonal reaches too. This Ignat does well, and better than Pederson who was recorded under Gielen on Naxos.

There are some fine singers amongst the other cast members. Ricardo Herrera (Tirésias), Bradley Robinson (Créon), and Harold Gray Meers (Le berger) all cope well with the demands made upon them. Herrera doubles effectively as the Watchman in the Sphinx scene, and Michael York puts in a useful double appearance as The High Priest and Phorbas. In recent years it has been common – in performances featuring Marjana Lipovsek, at least – for the roles of Jocaste and The Sphinx to be taken by the same singer. I feel, however, that there is something to be had in having two quite different timbres in the music. The Sphinx is a role that any dramatic mezzo could revel in and Stephanie Chigas does just that. Imposing, cajoling, demanding – she does nearly all one could ask for.

For all the scenes of outward drama and emotion in the first three Acts, I find Act IV unsurpassed in all opera to reveal more of the major protagonist through a journey to inner peace and self-reconciliation. A pity that in this performance Ignat does not quite capture the valedictory glow at the close which he found in Cagliari. Here he sounds tired, which is potentially positive given we see Oedipe as an old and weary man. However, his tiredness is more vocal than emotional, and as a consequence the resultant performance is not quite what one would ideally want.

The second Oedipe to appear on disc this year, and the second that is not entirely satisfactory as a first choice. However, as I said at the beginning, the scale of the undertaking was vast. I nonetheless salute the resolve of all concerned in bringing off an earnest attempt in performance. It has two advantages over the competitively priced release on Naxos: it gives the music uncut and provides a full libretto and translation. It is a shame that the track numbers are not given within the libretto to make following it easier, should one not know the work. Informative notes by Sever Tipei complete the booklet.

First recommendations: for overall musicality and depth of insight I would suggest Brediceanu followed by Foster in the studio recording stakes, assuming one does not mind Brediceanu’s reading being in Romanian. If you are after a studio recording in French and without cuts, then Foster on EMI is still the one to go for. I would strongly urge however Charles Bruck’s 1955 Radio France off-air relay be tracked down as an essential piece of additional listening. In the theatre, do not neglect Mandeal. Inexplicably, recording companies have to date where Oedipe is concerned – much to their shame.

Evan Dickerson 

Further reading:

Summary of available recordings of Enescu’s compositions – May 2005:

Naxos CD release and various off-air recordings – May 2006:


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