SALZBURG – It took more than 80 years for George Enescu’s Oedipe to arrive at the summer festival here, which – perhaps more than any other music institution – has the resources and vision to make a case for the opera. The new production, seen at the Aug. 11 premiere in the Felsenreitschule, brings together first-class musicianship with a staging as imaginative as it is bursting at the seams.
The tragédie lyrique in four acts has never had a strong foothold in the repertoire, remaining at Paris National Opera for only a year after its 1936 premiere and first receiving a new production two decades later in Brussels. The German-speaking world has seen prominent but scattered revivals since the 1970s, and the American premiere did not take place until 2005.
To this day, there is no authoritative print version of the score; for the Salzburg production, the conductor Ingo Metzmacher worked partly from a facsimile he found on a Romanian website. Enescu’s only opera nevertheless occupies a singular place in 20th-century music history: The score seamlessly combines the melismatic woodwinds of Romanian folk music, the blaring brass of Wagnerian music drama, and the transparent neo-classicism of Stravinsky.
The libretto by Edmond Fleg transforms the Oedipus myth into an epic narrative that begins with the title character’s birth and – in a twist to the original – ends with his disappearance in a flash of light. Although he has still gouged out his eyes in shame upon having learned that he committed patricide and entered into an incestuous relationship with his mother, there is no mistaking the undertones of Christian redemption: Man is stronger than fate, as Oedipe tells the Sphinx in the second act.
The new staging by Achim Freyer captures the story’s mythical dimensions through a dream-like aesthetic but resorts to realist symbols that not only fall flat but also undermine the music’s impact. Oedipe (the tireless, smooth-voiced baritone Christopher Maltman) is equipped with boxing gloves, while the Sphinx (the taunting Ève-Maud Hubeaux) leaves behind a giant high-heeled shoe after being defeated.
Freyer’s fantasy is more convincing in the abstract. The costumes, which he designed, range from a towering, stilt-enhanced figure for the blind prophet Tirésias (sung with pathos by veteran bass John Tomlinson) to a dress evoking a giant flower for Oedipe’s mother, Jocaste (the lush-voiced mezzo-soprano Anaïk Morel).
The court messenger Phorbas (Gordon Bintner) and Oedipe’s daughter Antigone (Chiara Skerath) appear all in white on the balconies that line the stone walls of the Felsenreitschule, while creatures ranging from a woodwind-playing goat to a giant insect line the wide stage. And in fact there is at times so much to absorb visually that the staging overwhelms the score.
The fourth act brings the production to a redeeming close as darkened lighting emphasizes the spiritual quality of the male chorus of Athenian elders (whether one finds the phalluses dangling from their costumes profound or merely provocative is another issue). So powerful is the lighting conceived by Freyer and designed by Franz Tscheck for choral scenes that one wishes it were deployed more often to mirror the score.
Aside from the at-times imprecise coordination of the offstage choruses (the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus), the evening is a musical triumph. The Vienna Philharmonic under Metzmacher performs with rhythmic clarity but also singing Romantic phrases. Woodwind solos emerge with chiseled perfection, the brass with a warm glow, the strings with rich legato.
Each and every one of the 13 soloists materializes in vivid emotional strokes through careful execution of Enescu’s declamatory vocal lines. For all the foibles of Freyer’s production, it’s a luxury revival.
Oedipe continues at the Salzburg Festival through Aug. 24. For information and tickets, go here.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.