In Uncategorized on June 2, 2016 at 8:26 am

Review – Oedipe (Royal Opera House, Thursday 26 May 2016)

Oedipe – Johan Reuter
Jocasta – Sarah Connolly
Tirésias – John Tomlinson
Theban High Priest – Nicolas Courjal
Créon – Samuel Youn
Antigone – Sophie Bevan
Sphinx – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Merope – Claudia Huckle
Phorbas – In Sung Sim
Shepherd – Alan Oke
Laios – Hubert Francis
Thésée – Samuel Dale Johnson

Directors – Àlan Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco
Set Designer – Alfons Flores
Costume Designer – Lluc Castells
Lighting Designer- Peter van Praet

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Leo Hussain (Conductor)

While history may be kinder to Kasper Holten, his tenure as Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House has been more of a miss than a hit. However, two productions that stand him in good stead of a more positive place in Covent Garden’s history are the superlative Król Roger a year ago and George Enescu’s Oedipe.

Oedipe is Enescu’s only opera and, from reading the programme, had a troubled and complex gestation. In four acts, and classified as a tragédie lyrique it tells the story of Oedipus from birth to death, or perhaps transfiguration. Musically there are hints from folksong to Debussy, passages of opulent lyricism contrasting with scenes more reminiscent of the Second Viennese School an attention to orchestral colour that makes this opera enthralling. Stylistically, the vocal writing is forged from similar sources, with the choral writing also hinting at traditional Orthodox church music.

It is also written for a larger than usual cast – fourteen generously listed in the programme and a significant role for the chorus. In the leading role as the tragic son and king was Johan Reuter, who made Oedipe a compelling and flawed but very human character. Vocally he was on top form, wonderfully radiant, shading his voice with a angel of colour to underline the range of emotions this tragic character had to endure. And as with the majority of the cast, his diction was excellent. But it was in the final act and in particular the closing scene, that Reuter was truly masterful – a performance that won’t be forgotten easily. As his mother and wife, Sarah Connolly matched him note for note, word for word, emotion for emotion. Ms Connolly seems to be making a name for herself playing tragic Greek queens – not that I am complaining. The agony of having her son torn from her in the first act was more than matched by the horror as she realized whom she had married. It was a shame that Enescu didn’t write more for the character, but what music she had, Connolly revelled in. Her rich mezzo was perfect for this music and she invested it with both vocal colour and depth.

Similarly, John Tomlinson – as he did with both Moses and Marke – commanded the stage as Tirésias both vocally and dramatically. A consummate singer-actor he was rightly and loudly lauded at the end of the opera. It’s strange that we don’t see Marie-Nicole Lemieux more often in the UK. Her Sphinx was as dramatically imposing as her singing, perched precariously it seemed atop a Stuka bomber. The final members of the central quintet of singer was Nicolas Courjal’s accomplished and secure High Priest.

There was also luxury casting in the smaller roles, with very notable performances from Sophie Bevan as Antigone, Samuel Dale Johnson as Thésée and the Créon of Samuel Youn.

Special mention must also go to the Royal Opera Chorus – their singing was both impassioned and fulsome and a worthy reminder that there is more than one excellent opera chorus in town.

The production was slightly and unintentionally – in parts – reminiscent of Król Roger. The opening scene, as the programme suggested, seemed inspired by bass relief from an ancient sarcophagus, with each act moving us through time from Ancient Thebes to the 1930s of Corinth, via 1940s France complete with Stuka and berets to an apocalyptic plagued-infested present day. The final scene was set in a future with a white suited Thésée reminiscent of Logan’s Run, for Oedipe’s final death cum transfiguration. Despite this canter through history, Ollé from La Fura dels Baus and Carrasco never allowed their direction to impede the story – each action and reaction from cast and chorus was fitting to the moment and allowed them, when required to increase the emotional intensity with only the slightest adjustments but achieving incredible impact.

Leo Hussain teased out the colours of the score without ever diminishing the rhythmic foundation on which Enescu has built his opera. While there were moments of laxness –due to Enescu’s own challenge in composing the opera – Hussain never let the tension fade and inspired both singers and orchestra to an incredible performance.

I hope that this production of Oedipe is not a one-off and that it will return. Perhaps in a time after Holten, Covent Garden may consider some thematic programming inspired by Greek tragedy – Oedipe, Elektra, Il ritorno d’Ulisse, Ariadne auf Naxos to name but a few.

Perhaps someone on Bow Street could suggest it.


  1. Krol Roger has been performed in UK – OperaScotland website gives Premières
    First performance: Warsaw (Wielki Theatre), 19 June 1926.
    First UK performance: London (Sadler’s Wells Theatre), 14 May 1975.
    First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Festival Theatre), 25 August 2008.
    Scottish Opera première: N/A.

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