La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday November 6 2011
Conductor: Leo Hussain. Production: Alex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus), Valentina Carrasco. Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Lluc Castells. Lighting: Peter Van Praet. Œdipe: Dietrich Henschel. Tirésias: Jan-Hendrik Rootering. Créon: Robert Bork. Le Berger: John Graham-Hall. Le Grand-Prêtre: Jean Teitgen. Phorbas: Henk Neven. Le Veilleur: Frédéric Caton. Thésée: Nabil Suliman. Laios: Yves Saelens. Jocaste: Natascha Petrinsky. La Sphinge: Marie-Nicole Lemieux. Antigone: Ilse Eerens. Mérope: Catherine Keen. Une femme thébaine: Kinga Borowska. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.
“Œdipe is one of the supreme operatic masterpieces of all time, one of the pinnacles of 20th century opera, of the kind that, alongside Pelléas, Wozzeck, Lulu or Die Soldaten, can be ticked off on the fingers of our hands.” Harry Halbreich.
So he’s a fan. Also in the programme notes for this new Brussels production, as well as in La Monnaie’s subscriber magazine, the conductor, Leo Hussain, wonders why Oedipe isn’t part of the standard repertoire. Having heard it yesterday, I wonder why too: it’s smashing, luscious, exotic, dramatic (time flew) opera. I thought I knew the work from my student days, but was wrong: I must have been mixing it up with some dreary French neoclassical stuff I used to have on tape. This, for me, was a major discovery of the kind I haven’t made since Die tote Stadt or (to a lesser extent) Die Gezeichneten. It should appeal to anyone who enjoys large-scale, post-romantic tonal works, from the Gurrelieder to – even - 50s Britten, via Zemlinsky, Schreker, Korngold, Janacek, Canteloube, Hindemith , Respighi, Vaughan Williams, Delius and so on (and is probably a good deal better than at least one or two of those). I ordered a set of CDs as soon as I got home and hope we might get a DVD of this production, either from Brussels or from Paris when it shows up at the Bastille.
I’ll try to be brief about the production. The basic concept seemed to be that man’s hubris in believing he can beat nature and escape his fate is timeless. We think we’ve got things nailed, but natural or man-made disasters continue to prove us wrong. Sets and costumes in the production were smeared with terracotta mud inspired by the escape, from an aluminium plant in Hungary in 2010, of a torrent of toxic red sludge. The overall colour of clay may also have been a reminder that a return to earth is the eventual fate of all of us.
Photos in the programme gave clues as to other sources of ideas for the production. During the musical introduction, what appeared to be an antique terracotta plaque in four, busy tiers of high-relief figures was projected on the safety curtain – in fact, a visual quotation from the doors of Milan cathedral: more biblical than classical. The curtain rose to reveal the same, but as a tableau vivant: four tiers of chorus, soloists and extras lining a portico in terracotta costumes. In acts two, three and four the portico, with or without terracotta statues, surrounded a single space for the action, which had its strong and weaker points.
Relatively weak was playing the scene between Oedipus and his adoptive mother as the Freudian analysis of a patient on the very couch, draped with a Persian carpet, depicted in the programme as Freud’s own, from Berggasse. Fairly strange, for the act four “epilogue,” were the terracotta busts (think terracotta army) emerging from the ground – though they made more sense once votive candles were placed before them - and Theseus and his men in white, post-apocalyptic overalls (Fukushima?). But the end of this opera is a bit strange anyway, an unexpected sort-of-Christian redemption with the now innocent Oedipus, presumably shriven by his many trials, in this production purified under a sudden shower of water from the flies before slowly walking off through double doors into a blaze of white light.
Act three was an effective enough evocation of the plague via references (grubby body bags, plain, square coffins…) to natural (tsunami) and man-made (toxic red sludge) disasters. But the best bits were definitely in act two: the scene at the crossroads, where workers with wheelbarrows were mending the road among yellow warning lamps till car headlights screeched in from the rear and the fight took place in the dark; and above all, the amazingly well-handled arrival, in search-lights, of a WWII Stuka, home to the sleeping Sphinx, and the most extraordinary acting and singing performance (with the support of a musical saw, a rare sight in the pit) of Marie-Nicole Lemieux, deranged in dreadlocks (lots of clay-smeared dreadlocks in this show).
The acting throughout was otherwise fairly conventional, but well-directed and committed, so I don’t agree with Le Monde’s ill-tempered review, which claimed there was no acting at all, just singers left to get by with stock operatic gestures. Nor do I agree with Le Monde’s bitter take on the musical side. Perhaps in the early days, when the critics were there, orchestra and chorus were still struggling with the score, but not yesterday: they were magnificent (indeed, as, in a different vein, with Atys, “magnifique” seemed to be the word on everyone’s lips at the interval; on the Walloons’ lips at any rate, though I imagine the Flemish were exclaiming whatever the Dutch equivalent may be) and Leo Hussain and the pit got some of the loudest applause. Le Monde at least agreed that even secondary roles were strongly cast, and took note of Marie-Nicole Lemieux’ tour de force (I wish I could for once get to see her in a leading role). But to pan Dietrich Henschel and hope, in all, for better casting in Paris was unkind. Henschel these days is, certainly, a touch “under-volumed” for the (killer) role, unable to dominate the sometimes paroxystic orchestral parts, but undeniably made up in elegance (and diction) for any lack of oomph.
The Brussels audience is an undemonstrative one, especially after Sunday lunch, but yesterday there were cheers, even from the usherette. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard “bravi” at La Monnaie before. Let’s hope that this production, as it travels, will restore the magnificent Oedipe to the international repertoire. Meanwhile, don't hesitate (even with Barbara Hendricks' name on the cover) to buy the CDs.