London Phil/Jurowski: Oedipe

Date: September 2, 2017
Location: Sala Mare a Palatului, Bucharest, Romania.

Oedipus: Paul Gay
Tirésias: Sir Willard White
Créon: Christopher Purves
Shepherd: Graham Clark
High priest: Mischa Schelomianski
Phorbas: In Sung Sim
The Watchman: Maxim Mikhailov
Thésée: Boris Pinkhasovich
Laïos: Marius Vlad Budoiu
Jocaste: Ruxandra Donose
The Sphinx: Ildikó Komlósi
Antigone: Gabriela Iştoc
Mérope: Dame Felicity Palmer

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic
Romanian Radio Children’s Choir

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
Carmen Lidia Vidu, multimedia director

concert performance, with multimedia projection

Since its premiere in 1936, Oedipe has rarely been performed anywhere, and has only appeared semi-regularly at the Bucharest National Opera (in the Romanian language and not in French, the language as written). This has been a travesty, as the opera is widely considered to be a masterpiece, whether of sophisticated orchestration or of incorporating Romanian folk elements. The reversal to mean started last year, when the Royal Opera staged it to rave reviews. London Philharmonic will open its new season at the Royal Festival Hall later this month. The Thuringian town of Gera will start a string of staged performances, beginning next April. Reviewed here was London Philharmonic’s festival opening concert at the Enescu Festival, with the same cast and crew for their forthcoming season opener in London.

Commenting on Oedipe, his first and only opera, Enescu once said that the opera must keep its momentum, with “no pathos, no repetitions, no unnecessary chatter.” As the opera tells the entire life story of Oedipus, from birth till death, the necessity to minimize over-indulgence on any specific emotion is obvious, lest the proceedings be stretched too long and tiresome. Accordingly, Oedipe is a composition where orchestrations take frequent and dramatic turns: harmony does not linger protractedly in one place, even if certain elemental figures repeat themselves, not necessarily as iconographic motifs but as construction layers upon which the orchestration seems to be built. The result shimmers with lushness and sophistication, in a freely flowing style not unlike Romanian doinas. Certain solo lines, particularly with the flute (Shepherd’s beautiful meander) and oboe, also point to the monophonic traditions and uninhibited rhythms found in doinas. Here, Vladimir Jurowski’s interpretation was hugely satisfying, especially in his ability to bring about dramatic fulfilment embodied in Enescu’s score. The orchestra could sound a little inert and unresponsive in the slower passages, but it came alive as Jurowski’s conducting arms started to animate and the tempo began to pick up. Jurowski’s thrashing arm movements and spirited body lurchings asserted his authority. The orchestra responded well, whether through relentless calamity of the lower brasses or the collective commitment of the eight double basses. In lyrical passages, the glorious flute of Sue Thomas and the wondrous harmony of the horn section held sway. The orchestra sounded unusually forthcoming in the fan-shaped hall that was probably more designed for punchy political proclamations (as Ceausescu did plenty here) than for vocal performance. Perhaps to ensure that the music could reach the upper tier, which had unencumbered views of but was quite far from the stage, the orchestra and the choir seemed ready and willing to dial up their volume. The effect was that some numbers, including the nightingale song, was probably too loud for those sitting close to the stage.

Paul Gay navigated the title role’s fiendishly treacherous lines with finesse and beauty, all the while maintaining dramatically fitting eye contact with other singers, as if they were acting on a real stage with costumes and sets. He donned white shirt and trousers in the first two acts, but changed to a red/black combination in the last two, as if to visually delineate between a life of innocence and that of sin — by way of attempting to defy destiny. In Sung Sim sounded sonorous yet tender enough as Phorbas that he could easily make a career singing roles such as Gurnemanz or Wotan. Ruxandra Donose nourished the role of Jocaste with a buttery voice, but unleashed a searing anguish as the story unfolded and Tirésias’ prophecy finally consumed her. The role of the Sphinx was portrayed by Ildikó Komlósi, who sang into a microphone from one of the side boxes and, through the loudspeaker, was able to produce an eerily chilling voice. Dame Felicity Palmer nursed a motherly but remorseful Mérope. The moribund way with which she walked off stage after her character’s suicide was consuming and chilling. Sir Willard White and Boris Pinkhasovich had the briefest moments as Tirésias and Thésée, but with their fine vocal specimen they evidenced a deep and luxurious cast.

Carmen Lidia Vidu’s videos provided vivid and interesting historical context but did not distract from the storytelling. The audience fell madly in love with the performance, in a hall where Ceausescu has made many proclamations that attempted to defy a destiny that would eventually befall him. Just as Oedipus was eventually consumed and transfigured by his decision to defy destiny, it seems all the more fitting that the opera was performed nowhere else but here.

Ballet and dance

Romanian National Ballet: La Sylphide

Date: March 30, 2014
Company: Romanian National Ballet
Choreography: Johan Kobborg, after August Bournonville
Location: Bucharest National Opera House, Bucharest.

Choreography by Johan Kobborg, after August Bournonville

Romanian National Ballet

Romanian National Opera (orchestra)
Ciprian Teodoraşcu (conductor)

When Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru signed on to be director of Romanian National Ballet, there was little doubt that the talents of Johan Kobborg would soon follow. The pair has enlivened the stage of Covent Garden for many years, before they controversially “retired” together from the Royal Ballet last year. The move allowed the pair more freedom to experiment and pursue guest gigs elsewhere. It was therefore soon after Cojocaru decided to offer her services to her homeland’s top company, Kobborg would follow. The Dane’s first project in the Romanian capital was a revival of La Sylphide, one of the oldest surviving romantic ballets in the entire repertoire and one that the pair was famously known for. The project was based on the 19th century work of Kobborg’s compatriot, balletmaster August Bournonville for the Royal Danish Ballet. Kobborg left the work untouched but added an Act I pas de deux for James and Effie which, by placing more dramatic importance on James and his psyche, seemed to suggest that the whole concept of the sylph was merely his own dreamy concoction. When this project premiered last December, Cojocaru caused a sensation in Bucharest by guest-starring. Kobborg also made news when it was announced after the prima that he agreed to sign on as co-director of the company. In this spring evening, company dancers took the stage, with principal Dawid Trzensimiech as James and Rin Okuno, in her role debut, as the sylph. Trzensimiech, solid the entire evening, showed why the Royal Ballet’s loss was the Romanian company’s gain. (Trzensimiech too defected from Covent Garden late last year.) His fouetté sauté always landed with crisp acuity, while he moved about on stage with brisk fluidity. Okuno demonstrated high arches and danced like an airy origami wind mill. Her point foot felt at times overly pushed forward, but if her intention was to be faithful to the point development of the 19th century, she was indeed a performing genius. The production, set appropriately in the Scottish highlands, had everything one would expect from La Sylphide: a chimney in Act 1 where the sylph actually disappeared before James and Gurn were able to find her; some stage trickery that allowed the sylph to disappear from the chair to embarrass Gurn and reassure Effie (danced by Diana Tudor); and a sylph that actually flew across (using wires!) the stage just as James collapsed to the ground, knowing that he has lost both Effie and the sylph. The orchestra was not what one would consider world-class, but they did their duties by going through Herman Severin Løvenskiold’s music from start to finish with no serious objection.

La Sylphide in Bucharest.

La Sylphide in Bucharest.

Ballet and dance

Romanian National Ballet: La Bayadere

Date: April 11, 2013
Location: Bucharest National Opera House, Bucharest.

Choreography by Mihai Babuşka, after Marius Petipa

Romanian National Ballet

Romanian National Opera (orchestra)

The first brick for the Bucharest National Opera House, which currently houses Romania’s national ballet company, was laid in the early 50s. By then, however, Romania’s ballet foundation has been set. In 1929, Vera Karalli, formerly of Ballets Russes, took over as ballet mistress and instilled its free-flowing vocabulary into Romania. La Bayadere is not a product of Ballets Russes, but the dancing reveals some of those roots. Bianca Fota seemed occasionally troubled by the precise steps of Nikiya, especially the difficult pique turns and multiple pirouettes. But her dancing was sensual and free-flowing, and when she arched back, as if to receive the sky, her body would curve like a silk scarf flying in mid-air. Gigel Ungureanu’s steps were confident and brisk, but neither the lascivious body curvatures of Fota nor the sweet smiles of Mihaela Soare’s Gamzatti seemed to engage him dramatically. In general, the ballerinas outshined the male dancers, as is the case for Romania’s another prized asset: gymnastics. The showcase triplets executed with good rhythm and smooth finish, but one wonders why the entire country of Romania, with its endless streams of fine gymnastic Olympians, had to rely on a Japanese trio of Rin Okuno, Sena Hidaka and Maki Shirase, good and dependable as they may be, to stage a ballet as quotidian as La Bayadere.

La Bayadere, Bucharest

La Bayadere, Bucharest.