The legend of Oedipus was brought to vivid dramatic life by Sophocles in two contrasting plays: the terrifying "Oedipus the King" and the serene "Oedipus at Colonos". The first was considered by Aristotle in his "Poetics" as the true model of dramatic structure. And with good reason: it is taut, intense, and explores the deepest recesses of our minds and emotions. Indeed, the Freudian "Oedipus" complex is as much a symbol and a commonplace of psychoanalytic analyses as Electra. Only seven plays have survived out of a total of more than a hundred, but some of them are unforgettable and as fully contemporary as in the Age of Pericles.
Curiously Oedipus, an enormous operatic subject potentially, has only elicited two important twentieth-century works: Stravinsky´s one-act "Oedipus Rex" and George Enesco´s "Oedipe", which has recently had its South American premiere at the Colón. Edmond Fleg, really Flegenheimer, was a French Jewish writer who had already done the interesting libretto for another valuable and un-premiered opera (in BA), Bloch´s "Macbeth". Enesco, a Romanian composer trained in Paris (he was a disciple of Fauré and Massenet), was 28 in 1909 when he saw Sophocles´ play performed in Paris and first conceived the idea of writing an opera on it. An arduous and lengthy process started when Fleg gave him the first draft of his libretto in 1913; but Enesco began the opera only in 1921 and finished it without the orchestration at the end of 1922, and played it in the apartment of his future wife, the Princess Marie Cantacuzene. However, the orchestration took an unconscionably long time and was only ended in 1932; and the premiere only came about in 1936 at the Paris Opera. It was a success and was revived a year later, but later only Bucarest, in Romanian translation, had it in the repertoire. Recently Brussels´ Théâtre de la Monnaie presented it produced by La Fura dels Baus, and now the Catalonian group has brought it to BA.
To those that know Enesco only through his vivid and charming First Romanian Rhapsody (a youthful score written at only 20), the stark, expressionist "Oedipe", the composer´s favorite work, will come as a shock. It is the only opera of a not very prolific but valuable composer, author of chamber and symphonic music. Last year we heard his Second Symphony and recently several chamber pieces in a Colón Sunday morning.
Fleg´s libretto is ambitious, for it tells the whole story of Oedipus, from birth to death.The first two acts are based on tradition about the myth or legend of Oedipus, the last two on Sophocles´ plays. The librettist narrates well the convoluted story, in a Neoclassic versified style that contrasts with the savage force of the music. He innovates in the climactic moment of the Sphinx´s enigma: he changes Sophocles´ riddle by this statement of Oedipus: "Man is stronger than Destiny"; whereupon the Sphinx dies, Thebes is liberated and Oedipus becomes King and Yocasta´s husband. From his first appearance at 20 in the Second Act, Oedipus (it means "of the swollen feet") fights against Destiny; he has no blame because he has always tried to avoid the oracle´s terrible prediction (he will slay his father and commit incest with his mother) and only knows the truth at the end of the Third Act when Tiresias and the Shepherd give him the facts. Yocasta commits suicide, Oedipus blinds himself, is driven out of Thebes by Creon and the crowd. The contrasting Fourth Act, in a sacred grove at Colonos, near Athens, will put him under the protection of King Theseus and the gentle Eumenides, and he will go alone without his faithful Antigone to die a peaceful death.
La Fura dels Baus presented last year a powerful production of Ligeti´s revulsive "Le grand macabre". Now they gave us a dramatically intense "Oedipe" though with some absurd extravagances, such as the Sphinx represented by a Nazi Stuka plane, and generally deplorable costumes. But some aspects were stunning, apart from their very good theatrical handling of the singer-actors. The First Act was admirable: a four-tiered mud-colored wall contained the singers and a myriad of terracotta statues, representing the Palace of Thebes. The Second Act has three contrasting tableaux, at the court of Corinth, at a crossroads (where provoked Oedipus kills his father Laios inadvertently) and in front of the walls of Thebes (the confrontation with the Sphinx). The crossroads scene is solved with virtuoso lighting and the unnecessary addition of a worker squad. The Third Act finds us in the midst of the Plague in Thebes, twenty years later, and this climactic act is given very powerfully. But the Fourth at Colonus is mishandled, for the Theban wall is still there and the sacred grove isn´t even suggested; to boot, Theseus has a ridiculous beekeeper attire. The producers were Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco based on Ollé´s conception: the stage images were the work of Alfons Flores, the costumes by Lluc Castells and the lighting by Peter Van Praet.
Enesco asks a lot from the chorus, and the Colón Choir under Peter Burian acquitted itself brilliantly. The Orchestra responded well to Ira Levin´s accomplished conducting. And the cast coped with most of the problems. The title role is crushing, and Andrew Schroeder sang and acted with intense commitment, although he is rather short on volume and low notes. The other three foreign singers (as Schroeder, making their local debut) were good enough: Natasha Petrinsky (Yocasta) projected convincingly her short appearance; Robert Bork as Creonte was effective though overloud; and Esa Ruuttunen, with the remnants of his voice, gave tragic stature to Tiresias.
The Argentine singers were a professional group. I found stunning the Sphinx of Guadalupe Barrientos, both vocally and dramatically. Several others were first-rate: Lucas Debevec as a powerful Sentinel; Gustavo Zahnstecher as a very lyrical Theseus; Enrique Folger as a commanding Laius; Gustavo López Manzitti as an anguished Shepherd with a clarion voice; Alejandro Meerapfel as a smooth-singing Forbantes; Fabián Veloz as a well-sung High Priest. A notch below due to lack of volume were Alejandra Malvino (Merope) and Victoria Gaeta (Antigone).
All in all, an important challenge well met and a valuable premiere.
For Buenos Aires Herald