Michael Tanner


The music lacks memorability, the staging evokes a sigh and the performances are mildly uneven – but I wasn’t bored for a moment

For years I have been telling people that they should listen to, in the absence of staged performances, Enescu’s opera Oedipe, preferably in the marvellous EMI recording from 1990, still available. It only occurred to me when I was preparing to go to the Royal Opera’s new production that I haven’t actually listened to a recording for many years — it seems to belong with its contemporary Busoni’s Doktor Faust as something more admired in the breach than the observance.

My feelings now, after seeing the production by La Fura dels Baus, are mixed. There is a lot of lovely music here, and some strong drama. I’m not sure that the music, mostly, supports the drama or indeed that it, the music, has any specific qualities. Listen to the brief prelude and you won’t feel prepared for anything in particular. The idiom, not so much eclectic as impersonal, is mainly attractive, inventive, but wholly lacking in memorability. I don’t know, and haven’t managed to find out, why Enescu chose French as the preferred language of his one opera, but it seems the right one for this mainly floating music, or perhaps it’s the other way round.

I realised how wise Stravinsky was to write his Oedipus drama to a Latin text, and to call it an ‘opera-oratorio’, though in fact it is far more dramatic than Enescu’s opera, to which the term would be much more appropriate. I don’t want to sound negative: I wasn’t bored for a moment in this medium-sized work, and the superb choral writing, done full justice to by a chorus who had to spend most of the time pretending to be the Terracotta Army — the first sight of the four-tiered set, with all those baked figures, is unforgettable — provided the same kind of thrill that you can get from a superior biblical epic.

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