23 May 2016 at 3.45pm | Comment on this article
Enescu’s opera Oedipe is a kaleidoscope of different musical languages. He was a consummate musician – a violinist, conductor and teacher who both championed and interpreted the music of his contemporaries.
Perhaps because of this, his masterpiece is a patchwork of shifting voices, as Enescu masterfully interprets very different musical ideas through his own distinctive lens. From this rich fabric Enescu’s writing for the Sphinx emerges as the strangest and most unsettling music in the opera.
Oedipe’s encounter with the Sphinx is the last in a series of events in Act II in which Enescu and his librettist Edmond Fleg show their hero taking the steps that bring about his own terrible fate. First he flees his adoptive home, thinking to evade the destiny predicted by the oracle. Next, at a crossroads, he unknowingly meets his real father, Laïos, and murders him. Finally, he comes to the gates of Thebes – his birthplace – and meets the Sphinx, a monster that has been ravaging the city. He will destroy the Sphinx, and in thanks the city will name him king and give him the hand of his mother, Jocaste, in marriage.
The appearance of the Sphinx is the climax of Act II and in many ways the centrepiece of the opera. It is through the Sphinx’s dialogue with Oedipe that Enescu and Fleg explicitly explore the driving idea of their version of the story: that of man’s struggle against his fate. As a daughter of destiny, the Sphinx is the physical manifestation of that fate. Enescu accordingly creates an otherworldly soundscape, a malicious aura around the Sphinx in which the opera’s previous musical structures seem to warp and unravel. Enescu’s monster is nightmarish, her music bewildering and malign, and her death shrouded in ambiguity.
The Sphinx exerts her terror by setting everyone who passes by her a riddle they cannot solve. When they fail to answer, she devours them, and leaves their blanched bones lying about her. A Watcher from the city is posted by her as she sleeps. He begs the wandering Oedipe to stop his sorrowful song, terrified that he will wake the Sphinx. As he points her out to Oedipe we hear fleeting rasps in the violins, flashes of horror against the slumberous sounds of murmuring woodwind.
Oedipe determines to save the city and through agitated music wakes the Sphinx, to the horror of the Watcher. A monstrous crescendo marks its awakening but once she begins to sing her music is soft, slow and sleepy – wrapped in the sinuous, feline lines that characterize all her music. She has been waiting for Oedipe, she says. Enescu gradually expands the music with exquisite control, as the Sphinx anticipates her conquest of Oedipe – ‘of all my victims, you will be the most beautiful’ – and exults in the power of destiny over both man and gods.
Finally, she sets Oedipe her riddle. As part of their vision of the story, Enescu and Fleg alter Sophocles’ original riddle. Instead the Sphinx asks ‘What is greater than destiny?’ Oedipe delivers his answer to exalting fanfare: ‘Man.’ The Sphinx’s moaning response swings between laughter and weeping, underpinned by bathetic trombones. Her death cries are the balance of her monstrous awakening, slowly receding into silence; her final upwards glissando into death is continued in the unearthly sound of a musical saw. It is the perfect musical setting of her final words – ‘Only the future will tell you if the dying Sphinx is weeping at her defeat or laughing at her victory’ – words which haunt Oedipe through the celebratory coronation that follows.
Oedipe runs 23 May–8 June 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is a co-production of La Monnaie, Brussels, and Opéra National de Paris, and is generously supported by the Monument Trust, Richard and Ginny Salter, the Romanian Cultural Institute and the Friends of Covent Garden.