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Listen: Why has Enescu's operatic masterpiece Oedipe been neglected for so long?

Conductor Leo Hussain on the baffling neglect of an innovative myth-inspired opera that fuses the sounds of Debussy and Wagner.

By Mattia Cabitza (Freelance Journalist)

21 April 2016 at 4.42pm | 2 Comments

Oedipe has been a ‘neglected masterpiece’, says conductor Leo Hussain ahead of The Royal Opera’s first-ever production of George Enescu’s only opera.

After its premiere in Paris in 1936, the opera has received only sporadic performances and has been seen rarely outside the Romanian composer’s home country, something that puzzles Hussain. He believes that the piece has not only been forgotten for too long, but that it quite rightly deserves to become part of the operatic repertory: ‘I find it very difficult to find any artistic reason for its neglect', he says.

‘[Such reasons] are mainly practical’, continues the British conductor, who is making his Royal Opera debut with Oedipe. A properly published and edited orchestral score doesn’t exist; busy star singers and conductors don’t often have the time nowadays to do even read-throughs of such rarely-staged operas; and the ‘epic-size’ orchestra written in the piece – lots of percussions, four keyboard instruments, and huge brass, woodwind and string sections as well as an eerie sounding musical saw – can only mean that Enescu’s work is quite expensive to put on, ‘particularly for a middle-size opera house’.

But when such challenges are eclipsed, as will be the case next month in Covent Garden, Hussain is certain that many in their seats will also soon be baffled by how long it’s taken them to discover Oedipe’s ‘extraordinary’ music.

'From lush Wagnerian to translucent Debussyan’, the conductor explains, ‘it really encompasses almost every style of 20th century music - even styles that had not been written in when Enescu was writing the piece’.

The score calls for saxophone solos that sound ‘plaintive and haunting’, orchestral passages that resemble the ‘slightly faded grandeur of early Hollywood epics’, and ‘quite extreme, quite chromatic’ harmonies that lend a ‘very eerie, very strange colour’. The icing on the cake comes at the end of the opera, which features a piece of music that according to Hussain is ‘one of the most beautiful, moving and thrilling arias that exists. It's half Pelléas et Mélisande and half Götterdämmerung. It's an extraordinary piece of music’.

Enescu’s musical genius apart, Hussain believes that Oedipe’s exquisite melodic phrasing and rich orchestral writing were also the results of the long gestation period of the opera. The composer made his first sketches of the piece in 1910 but it was only in 1932 that the opera was finished, partly on account of its creator's obsession with detail. His instructions on how to play notes, for example, don’t simply employ the customary range of six dynamics, from pianissimo to fortissimo. For Enescu that wasn't enough - he also wants the music to be heard ben [quite] piano, ben forte or poco [little] forte. ‘There’s barely a note in the 500 pages of the score which doesn’t have an individual marking on it', summarizes the conductor.

Moreover, Hussain believes that Enescu spent 22 years writing the opera because, quite simply, he was a ‘very, very busy man’ who also had to juggle a demanding schedule of concert tours all over the world. He wasn’t only the composer who created ‘a national music of Romania’; he was also a ‘real virtuoso’ at the violin, an ‘extraordinary’ conductor, a proficient pianist and a music writer – in short, ‘one of the most complete musicians of the 20th century’. Enescu may indeed have struggled to find the time to write another opera, but Hussain is pleased that Oedipe is the one he did.

Oedipe runs 23 May-8 June 2016. Tickets are still available.

It is a co-production with La Monnaie, Brussels and is generously supported by the Monument Trust, Richard and Ginny Salter, The Romanian Cultural Institute and The Friends of Covent Garden. Find out how you can support the Royal Opera House.

By Mattia Cabitza (Freelance Journalist)

21 April 2016 at 4.42pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged 20th century, audio, by Àlex Ollé, conductor, interview, Leo Hussain, neglect, Oedipe, Production, rare

This article has 2 comments

  1. Alen responded on 24 April 2016 at 4:42pm Reply

    It's a geopolitical issue - a matter of power dynamics amongst european nations I'm afraid, which is then reflected in repertoire and audience tastes.

  2. Eric Firkins responded on 13 May 2016 at 6:56am Reply

    I have listened three times already to this opera on CD (played by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo) and agree with everything that the conductor has said . It is a masterpiece and I am looking forward very much to seeing it live at the Opera House. I hope that these performances will be able to place this opera in it's rightful place on the operatic repertoire. This will be hastened if a DVD and Blu-Ray of this production is issued.

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