Destiny's Child

George Enescu
Edmond Fleg
La Monnaie, Brussels

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, November 4

What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night? As riddles go, the one posed by the Sphinx to Oedipus is not a particularly hard one. Most of us learn it at primary school. Some children guess it straight off, apparently. A harder riddle is how the story of the Sphinx came into the legend in the first place, or more specifically how it kept its place there in Sophocles’ starkly humancentred treatment of the legend.

In the version of the story by the French- Jewish author and librettist Edmond Fleg, the riddle is different but the answer is the same. Fleg’s treatment of the drama is perhaps the most expansive in existence, covering the entire span of Oedipus’ life to his final transfiguration. The sphinx appears towards the end of Act Two, woken by Oedipus, who senses, after his misadventures at the crossroads, an opportunity to get his destiny back on track. “Je veux sauver la Ville”, he sings, in a brash, cocky manner not unreminiscent of Wagner’s hero Siegfried. “Réveille-toi! C’est le fils de Polybos, c’est Oedipe qui t’appelle!”

The crucial fact that Oedipus is not, in fact, Polybos’ son is left unremarked by the Sphinx, who asks whether there is anything or anyone greater than “le Destin” itself. George Enescu’s music at this point is extraordinary. His lines for the Sphinx veer between Sprechstimme and unanchored glissandi whose unpredictable contours echo her inscrutable malevolence, underlined by a non-committal polyphony in the woodwind and articulations from the céleste. A brief pause follows her question, and then an explosion in the percussion and strings brings the answer crashing down from the protagonist. “L’homme”, he cries, repeatedly. “L’homme est plus fort que le Destin!”

But is he? That, indeed, is the question posed by Sophocles, and Fleg and Enescu refocus our minds on it with striking dramatic clarity in their opera. For while the answer given by Oedipus appears to defeat the Sphinx, she concedes no such thing. Instead she recedes in half-surprised, half-knowing laughter, eventually disappearing in an upward glissando which is continued in the orchestra (by a saw), suggesting a continuity from the human realm of the voice to an inhuman one of purer sound. The uncanny musical textures linger in the noisy jubilations of the following scene, in which Oedipus is given Thebes and its widowed Queen in short order. The events that follow, as is well known, give the protagonist more than sufficient occasion to ponder the reality of his apparent victory.

“When I put down the pen after that scene”, noted Fleg some time later, “I thought I was going mad.” Enescu, too, took lengthy pause after scoring the scene, though this was not due to encroaching insanity but to the practicalities of the composer’s busy parallel career as a virtuoso violinist and conductor. A two-month concert tour separates work on the Sphinx scene from the following coronation scene. Musically, though, the two seem worlds apart, the coronation scene suffused in a blazing daylight of Walton-esque pan-diatonicism, while the preceding scene seems to presage György Ligeti, even Tristan Murail. The entire score, in fact, is criss-crossed by an extraordinary stylistic palette which seems unconstrained by the narrow orthodoxies of musical history. It is closest in spirit perhaps to Berlioz, but the sound worlds evoked in this and other scores stretch far both into future and past.

Oedipe is Enescu’s only opera, and it took him some twenty years to write. It premiered successfully in the composer’s adopted city of Paris in 1937, but never entered the repertoire there, or anywhere else. A staging in Brussels in 1956 followed, at the command of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, but since then its presence on the operatic stage has been sporadic at best. Certainly, it is an ambitious piece to mount. Casting the title role, in particular, is nigh-on impossible (“anyone except Bryn Terfel is a compromise”, the current production’s conductor told me before it opened), and the complexities of the string writing and the frequent use of quarter-tones require more rehearsal time than most opera houses can manage these days. Still, the case for mounting one of the most intriguing operatic essays of the last century remains convincing, and the management of La Monnaie are to be congratulated. The staging is by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus, most recently seen here, and in London, in Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. His conception takes its cue from the timelessness of the legend. Alfons Flores’s set opens as a fourtiered frieze, supported by a rough wooden scaffold, populated by life-size clay models and their animated counterparts. The absence of perspective captures brilliantly the primitivism of the Thebes into which Laius and Jocasta’s ill-starred offspring is born. But after the first act, the scaffold moves further back, progressively, opening up to scenes located squarely in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. Mérope is a psychoanalyst, the Sphinx resides in a crash-landed Messerschmitt, and the pestilential, mud-caked chaos of the third and fourth acts is inspired, apparently, by the images of the red, toxic sludge which swept across the Hungarian plain last year after an explosion in an aluminium factory. It sounds odd on paper. On stage, it has a tremendous effect.

With the exception of the chorus, the evening is less of a success musically speaking. There is no lack of commitment in Leo Hussain’s musical direction, and he co-ordinates what has evidently been a Herculean effort from the orchestra and cast. But this score needs tighter control if its extravagant gestures are to avoid both incoherence and, perhaps more importantly, drowning out the singers. Dietrich Henschel’s Oedipe, in particular, was barely audible at a number of key moments, and only Marie-Nicole Lemieux, as the Sphinx, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering’s Tirésias succeed in stamping authority on their roles. Still, there is much to marvel at, and Hussain and Henschel save their best for the final act. Following what is Fleg’s oddest intervention in the myth, in which Oedipe exclaims that nothing that has passed is his fault (“Ai-je une part aux crimes ourdis par le Destin quand je n’étais pas né?”), the score changes gear, initiating a passage of marked transparency and balance. Strikingly modern, Oedipe’s attempt at self-exculpation is perhaps not altogether convincing, but Enescu’s luminous score easily overwhelms such cynicism.

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