George Enescu (1881-1955) may be Romania’s best known composer but little of his music is widely familiar. He wrote just the one opera, over a period of 20 years between 1910 and 1930; it eventually made its debut in Paris in 1936. There haven’t been many revivals, though there’s been a bit more interest of late. Staged by members of the Catalan theatrical collective La Fura dels Baus, this co-production with Brussels and Paris represents its first staging at Covent Garden.
The piece is a French-language setting of the Oedipus story in a lengthy, birth-to-death version that includes all the well-known episodes spread over four substantial acts.
Enescu’s style is an uneasy blend of late romanticism with modernist touches. Unfortunately there are few memorable ideas – the score has a tendency to meander endlessly without ever really getting to the point.
Alex Olle’s staging begins with the unforgettable image of the principals and expanded chorus standing motionless on a vast structure rising through four levels to the full height of the proscenium arch. Lluc Castell’s mostly mud-coloured costumes blend ancient Greece with modern military fatigues, the uncertain times in which Oedipus lived and died reflected in the tensions of more recent periods.
The problem is that many of these images have long been cliches of contemporary opera staging, their impact diminished through over-repetition. The result is a gloomy spectacle scarcely enlivened even by the mystifying appearance of Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Sphinx as the pilot of a Spitfire.
Led by Johan Reuter’s tireless Oedipus, a hardworking cast does everything it can but the material is musically dull and visually unrewarding. Sarah Connolly presents a glamorous Jocaste. John Tomlinson’s Tiresias sounds desperately worn. Talented conductor Leo Hussain highlights subtleties in the score, but he is unable to give it the dramatic vitality it so fatally lacks.