Defying Destiny: Œdipe at the Komische Oper Berlin

Enescu – Œdipe

Œdipe – Leigh Melrose
Tirésias – Jens Larsen
Jocaste – Karolina Gumos
La Sphinge – Katarina Bradić
Antigone – Mirka Wagner
Mérope – Susan Zarrabi
Créon – Joachim Goltz
Le berger – Johannes Dunz
Le grand prêtre – Vazgen Gazaryan
Le veilleur – Shavleg Armasi
Laïos – Christoph Späth

Kinderchor der Komischen Oper Berlin, Vocalconsort Berlin, Chorsolisten der Komischen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin / Ainārs Rubiķis.
Stage director – Evgeny Titov

Komische Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, September 11th, 2021.

Enescu’s Œdipe is undergoing something of a mini-revival currently.  Following high-profile productions at De Munt – La Monnaie (later imported by the London Royal Opera), as well as in Salzburg, it was the turn of the ever-ambitious Komische Oper to take on Enescu’s magnum opus.  The house has taken a different approach to last night’s in Hamburg to the current sanitary measures.  Audience members are required to check in using either of the tracing apps used in Germany, or through a handwritten form.  EU Green Passes are checked, and guests given a wrist band to wear for the duration of their stay.  Face masks are compulsory around the house, but can be removed during the show, while the house sold reduced capacity with seats blocked out and sold in units of 1 or 2. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Perhaps also due to the current sanitary restrictions, the choruses were placed around the highest balcony in Evgeny Titov’s production, singing into the auditorium, while on stage the principals acted out the action with the aid of a group of extras.  The set (Rufus Didwiszus) was an impressive steel encasing structure, set around a central pool, intimating from the very start the fact of the inevitability of Œdipe’s fate.  The effect of the chorus singing as if commenting on the action worked well to an extent, but I must admit to missing the effect of a mass of individuals expressing jubilation or horror as required, and the wall of sound that would come as a result.  The production cut around 40 minutes of music, and the effect was to really concentrate the action on the central character, removing the societal implications and making this a much more intimate piece than the cast of thousands sprawling epic that it is at its core. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

That doesn’t mean that Titov’s staging lacks impact – the sight of Œdipe having gouged his eyes was suitably horrifying, amplified by the choral sound from high up.  He also created a haunting stage picture, with Œdipe alone in the pool, his silhouette projected onto the wall behind, reinforcing his loneliness.  And yet, I lost a sense of the wider context of the work and its characters.  The sense of a world struggling through a plague – how relevant right now – and of how Œdipe’s actions affected those around him.  Perhaps, due to our current plague, there was a need to reduce the work to its essence and place the choruses away from the main stage.  Yet while Titov’s staging does provide a burst of theatrical energy, it felt that we were only getting a fragment of the work rather than the whole thing.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

There was much to admire in the performances of the principals, not least Leigh Melrose in the title role.  Melrose has made a speciality of these big twentieth and twenty-first century roles.  His Œdipe was sung in decent French and with a firm baritone that had good resonance.  He was unafraid to compromise the beauty of tone to display Œdipe’s desperation, and held the stage with a highly energetic and unflinching stage presence.  Diction across the board was comprehensible and aided by the fact that the seat-back titles also offered the original French. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

In the extensive cast, Karolina Gumos gave us a superbly-sung Jocaste, in a ruby red mezzo with wonderful resonance and ease throughout the range.  She also sang in impeccable French, making every word audible and filling them with meaning.  Jens Larsen was a tower of strength as Tirésias, like Melrose, unafraid to compromise the beauty of his bass to illustrate the desperation of his character.  As Le veilleur, Shavleg Armasi sang in a jet black bass that descended to the sepulchral depths with fullness – and he also made much of the words.  Katarina Bradić coped admirably with the wide range of La Sphinge’s tessitura – while the register breaks were audible, she made them an integral part of her interpretation, commanding the stage with ease.  Susan Zarrabi sang Mérope in an elegant mezzo with a fine sense of line.  Christoph Späth brought his characterful tenor to the role of Laïos, which he did by focusing the tone on the text.  The remaining roles reflected the admirable quality of the house.

The choruses sang with impressive blend of tone, no war of vibratos here, impeccable tuning and water-tight ensemble – particularly remarkable given how they were scattered around the auditorium.  Ainārs Rubiķis kept a tight rein on proceedings – perhaps too tight in the celebrations following the defeat of La Sphinge, which felt held back, not exploding with jubilation as they should – although that of course could have been due to the placement of the choruses.  He explored the score’s sound world by exploiting the full capacities of the Komische orchestra, making much of the score’s nocturnal tinta, while also getting the strings to dig deep to provide a remarkably full texture.  The quality of the orchestral playing was first class, other than a few very passing stretches of sour string intonation. 

That the Komische had the ambition to take on this epic work in a time of plague is testament to their ambition and determination to fulfil the mission of the house.  It was performed at an extremely high level and reflected the quality of the ensemble and the house forces, anchored by a central performance of fearless commitment.  Titov’s staging produced a fascinating theatrical experience, but I left with a feeling that we had been left without the wider context of the work and its setting.  That said, the fact that we were able to see it at all is miraculous.  That it was so well performed this is more miraculous still. 

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