Johan Reuter in 'Oedipe'. Photo: Clive Barda
Johan Reuter in 'Oedipe'. Photo: Clive Barda © Clive Barda

The Oedipus legend casts a long shadow over theatre and film from Dryden and Voltaire to Cocteau and Pasolini. Opera has been more reluctant to engage with it. Only Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, an “opera-oratorio”, comes round with regularity, more in the concert hall than the opera house. Julian Anderson’s recent Thebans also tried its hand at English National Opera.

That leaves George Enescu’s Oedipe, premiered in 1936, as the main operatic setting of the myth. Although his opera is getting performances more often than it used to, this new production is the first time it has been staged at London’s Royal Opera House. It leaves a dour, slow-moving, but ultimately powerful impression.

Enescu’s setting is ambitious in relating Oedipus’s life story from cradle to grave. Interestingly, Anderson’s Thebans took a similar decision, telescoping an entire trilogy into one evening, but, unlike that, Oedipe never feels rushed. Far from it — the first two acts are a long slog, worse than Wagnerian in their refusal to hurry in engaging the audience either musically or dramatically. But don’t leave at the interval: the second half, as Oedipus discovers the double horror of his fate, rouses tragedy of mounting intensity.

Fortunately, the Royal Opera production by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, shared with Brussels and Paris, is visually impressive from the start. The curtain goes up to reveal a wall of ancient Greek figures, like a giant frieze, after which the action moves to Enescu’s own time. Some modern clichés apart (the road-menders, the first world war aircraft), it aspires to a timeless grandeur.

A fine cast, headed by the tireless Johan Reuter as Oedipe, is given little to work with musically. Enescu rarely offers the singers more than lyrical scraps, but Sarah Connolly’s Jocaste, John Tomlinson’s Tirésias, Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Sphinx and Sophie Bevan’s Antigone all make their mark. The Royal Opera orchestra, conducted by Leo Hussain, plays scrupulously even when Enescu’s score is wandering about aimlessly and makes the most of its French-tinted high points, as impressionist mists cloud Oedipe’s mind and blazing brass reinforces the final flood of light. Not a neglected masterpiece, but a serious piece of work. See it now or not at all.

To June 8,

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