The Journey of a Man: Oedipe at the Royal Opera House

Enescu – Œdipe

Œdipe – Johan Reuter
Tirésias – John Tomlinson
Jocaste – Sarah Connolly
La Sphinge – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Antigone – Sophie Bevan
Mérope – Claudia Huckle
Créon – Samuel Youn
Le berger – Alan Oke
Le grand prêtre – Nicolas Courjal
Phorbas – Sim In-Sung
Le veilleur – Stefan Kocan
Thésée – Samuel Dale Johnson
Laïos – Hubert Francis
Une femme Thébaine – Lauren Fagan

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Leo Hussain.
Stage directors – Àlex Ollé & Valentina Carrasco

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Thursday, June 2nd, 2016.

This run of Œdipe, of which tonight’s performance was the fourth, is the first at the Royal Opera House.  For it they imported a production from Brussels, cast a group of fine singer-actors, and engaged one of the most exciting young opera conductors.  Much like its subject matter, the work itself is a sprawling epic, tracing the course of a man’s life from before his birth to his eventual death.  For the bass-baritone singing the title role, it’s an enormous undertaking since he appears on stage almost continuously.  Perhaps the notable feature of the work is how within the narrative, what we see is effectively a sequence of dialogues for Œdipe with different characters.  Some appear more than once, others have a single scene and are not seen again.

Johan Reuter. Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda
Johan Reuter. Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

The staging was the work of La Fura dels Baus and as so often with this group, it was a visually striking evening.  As the audience enters, we are confronted with a stage-high fresco showing an image from antiquity.  As the prologue leads into the first act, the curtain rises to show precisely that same scene performed in front of us – history quite literally coming to life in front of our eyes.  This was a very perceptive staging that took as its centrepiece the role of destiny in determining Œdipe’s future, even before he had been born.  As the evening progresses, the back and sides of the set reveal rows of statues seemingly illustrating the fact that history is ever present, even within history itself.  There were some interesting touches – as Mérope prepares to speak with Œdipe, we see her putting on a white coat with Œdipe talking to her from a couch – a neat nod to Freud.  After the adult Œdipe is exiled from Thebes, we see Créon arrive to convince him to return – not in the modern dress of the preceding scene, but in a tunic indicating perhaps that without Œdipe, Thebes is destined to become a place of the past.  Personenregie was sensitive, with characters addressing each other rather than standing and delivering, and the directors moved the large forces around with confidence.  It was undoubtedly a visually interesting and perceptive piece of work.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda
Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

Musically, I must admit that I found it a bit mixed but where it was good, it was indeed very, very good.  Johan Reuter gave much satisfaction in the title role.  He had clearly worked extremely hard on the language and the style and his diction was immaculate.  What I appreciate in his singing is his impeccable musicality and complete self-awareness, which mean that the voice is never pushed beyond its natural limits.  His was a more introverted portrayal of the role than one might have expected – yes there was power in the places where it was needed, but this was an Œdipe who was haunted and whose existence was taken over by a battle with his inner demons.  Reuter also ideally mapped Œdipe’s journey from youthful ennui to fear to resignation.  As a reading it certainly convinced and he sounded vocally as fresh at the end of the evening as he did at the start.  His instinctive musicianship and sense of line were combined with a voice that rose from a full bottom to an easy top with the vibrations always even.

John Tomlinson. Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda
John Tomlinson. Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

Reuter was joined by two quite unforgettable cameos from John Tomlinson and Marie-Nicole Lemieux.  Tomlinson’s Tirésias wailed desperately as he started singing, not inappropriately given the text, and the voice seemed to work only through sheer willpower.  It didn’t make for easy listening but it was absolutely magnetic.  Even now, he fills the theatre with singing based in the text and sheer force of expression.  Similarly as la Sphinge, Lemieux absolutely dominated the stage.  She dispatched all of Enescu’s vivid vocal writing in an almost virtuosic way, using the voice with total command of technique and of the massive range of the part.  Her fearless singing was absolutely remarkable.  Naturally her diction was utterly gripping, the role sung off the text and the words coloured with such imaginative use of tone.  She was sensational.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux & Johan Reuter. Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda
Marie-Nicole Lemieux & Johan Reuter. Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

In the remainder of the very large cast, diction was somewhat more variable but was a massive improvement on the incomprehensible Dialogues des Carmélites we had a few years ago.  Sarah Connolly’s slender mezzo sounded somewhat pushed in the more declamatory lines of Jocaste’s part but her attractive phrasing and elegant line worked well.  Likewise, Sophie Bevan’s Antigone was sung in a limpid soprano of great beauty combined with beguiling lyricism.  Samuel Youn sang with cloudy diction but with heroic, focused tone that carried well.  Sim In-Sung revealed a voice of complex fragrance and genuine depth of tone.  Nicolas Courjal imparted his music in a healthy, rounded bass and Stefan Kocan sang with a rich, resonant bass with a full and generous bottom.  The remainder of the cast was certainly acceptable.

Sarah Connolly & Johan Reuter. Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda
Sarah Connolly & Johan Reuter. Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

The Royal Opera Chorus was an energetic and physically tireless presence on stage.  They threw themselves into everything asked of them with aplomb – from standing completely still at the start, to their jubilations at the end of Act 2 – they executed their movements with excellent commitment.  At the close of Act 2 they also produced an impressive wall of sound.  It would have been even more impressive if it had been better tuned with a few over-prominent vibratos affecting pitch among the ladies, with the result that tuning was regrettably compromised at times.  That said, their commitment and tirelessness were certainly notable.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda
Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

The other factor that gave an enormous amount of pleasure in this performance was the conducting of Leo Hussain.  In the same way that the staging managed to trace the arc of the story, his conducting similarly traced the scores’s architecture in an extremely impressive way.  His conducting revelled in subtle, almost imperceptible tempo changes and he really had the measure of all aspects of this kaleidoscopic score with a really intelligent use of orchestral colour.  He brought out the folksy aspects of the score, such as the oboe melody that leads into the opening chorus given an almost improvisatory quality.  Hussain was also supportive to his singers, always letting them through and even in the slower music – in which the work abounds – there was never a sense of dragging.  He was well served on the whole by the Royal Opera House orchestra – the winds especially offering playing of genuine character.  Intonation in the upper strings was fine but sadly that of the cellos and basses was not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda
Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

Tonight was certainly a highlight of the Royal Opera’s current season and I was pleased to see a completely full house for the show.  I must admit the evening flew by for me, captivated by the unerring sense of the work’s architecture communicated by the conducting and by the staging.  We were given a complex and thoughtful interpretation of the title role, very well sung by a genuinely musical and instinctive artist.  Combined with two absolutely magnetic cameos and some of the best conducting I’ve head the pleasure of hearing in this house, this really was an excellent evening.


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