Peter J. Rabinowitz
Enescu's Oedipe is the antithesis of Stravinsky's more or less contemporary setting of the story: tonally opulent where Stravinsky's is severe and hard, effusive where Stravinsky's is compact, luxuriously curved where Stravinsky's is brittle and angular, emotionally enveloping where Stravinsky's is self-consciously distant, rhapsodic where Stravinsky's is rigorous (indeed, one of Enescu's favorite markings is senza rigore). Enescu's patient wash ofrich post-impressionistic textures and his rhythmically supple declamatory style suggest a prime source in Pelléas. But Oedipe is darker and more violent. Its vocal writing is more extreme (including a fair amount of Enescu's equivalent of Sprechstimme); and even though its whispers are as subtle as anything in Debussy's opera, both in its explosive choral outbursts and in its lacerating cries of deep psychological trauma, it's less intimate, more public. It's not atonal in the sense, say, that Wozzeck is; but Enescu's harmonies are consistently unstable (especially in the brief quarter-tone writing), and while they recognize tonal centers, they tend to resist them. The orchestration is consistently evocative, too, and sometimes surprising (e.g., the saxophone at a crucial point in Oedipus's climactic act III speech, the musical saw at the end of the confrontation with the Sphinx). Even though Oedipe is widely (and rightly) considered Enescu's masterpiece, it has never caught on with the wider public (see David Johnson's rather tepid response in 14:4); indeed, although it's been recorded at least twice before, this is the only readily available version. (The old Electrecord LPs are long gone; on the Internet sources I've checked, Foster's EMI version either isn't listed at all or else requires special ordering with no guarantee of arrival.) But you shouldn't let its rarity deter you: if you appreciate Pelléas, Bartok's Bluebeard, and Szymanowski's King Roger, you'll find Oedipe a gripping experience as well.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the Naxos performance. Oedipe is a longish opera: besides distilling Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrranus and Oedipus at Colonnus in the last two acts, it includes two earlier acts centering on Oedipus's birth and on his young manhood before becoming King of Thebes. But while it's long, it's not at all garrulous, and the cuts introduced here-some- where around 15 or 20 percent of the score-don't tighten the opera so much as undermine its integrity and power. It's not simply that Gielen has cut much of the non-narrative material (some dance music toward the beginning, for instance, or the opening invisible chorus and much of the victory chorus that frame act II)-although even these decisions crucially alter the balance of the experience, especially in act IV. No, more damaging still, he has excised a lot of dramatic dialogue as well, including much of Oedipus's act II description of his encounter with the Oracle and (more incomprehensible yet) most of the big speech (starting just before rehearsal 364 in the final act) where Oedipus interprets, for Creon and the Thebans, the meaning of his life.
Nor is Gielen temperamentally an ideal Oedipe interpreter. There's plenty to admire here: he conveys the score's brilliance and its bursts of high-modern jaggedness with striking power (listen, for instance, to the violent exchange between Oedipus and the Shepherd in act III); but Gielen is not sympathetic to the impressionist strands, and the more rhapsodic passages often seem ill-defined and directionless (listen, as but one example, to the fairly flat performance of the onstage solo flute in the second tableau of act II). The orchestra plays reasonably well-although the strings are thin, and there are more than a few moments of the loose ensemble you expect in an unedited live performance. The choral passages could use more heft.
Fortunately, there is some magnificent solo work. Pederson sings with accuracy, weight, and a sure sense of the rhetorical force of his lines; he is arguably an even more wrenching protagonist than Jose van Dam on Foster's EMI recording. Lipovsek, in a clever bit of casting, plays both the Sphinx (a role she played for EMI) and Jocaste; she's impressive too, especially in the way she invests the Sphinx with a post-Carmen sexual danger. And while the High Priest too often swallows his words, Creon, Tiresias, and Thesee all come across as vivid characters. The sound is decent; the booklet contains a plot summary but no libretto.
In sum, Gielen's recording is an uneven affair. But whatever its weaknesses, it does give you a good sense of the flavor of the score; and since, as I've said, the competition is hard to find, this Naxos version is tentatively recommended. Still, our lives would be fuller if EMI would give the Foster another wide release.