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.

Orchestral music

LPO/Eschenbach Day 2: Folklores, tales

Date: January 6, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

If Day 1 focused on a natural world with hints of the supernatural, then Day 2 gravitates towards the telling of stories and the interpretation of ideas. The LPO/Eschenbach lovefest continues at the NCPA, with Eschenbach conducting a night of program music: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, Stravinsky’s (1919) Firebird Suite, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

In Romeo and Juliet, Eschenbach brings the image of Shakespeare’s feud of the Montagues and Capulets to the NCPA’s concert hall by unleashing undulating strings and roaring brass – the composer’s tools for describing not only the fervent emotions of the two young lovers but the turbulence of the two families. In the coda, the timpani leads the funeral march with haunting authority, and ends the piece with a heart-aching drum roll that seemingly crystallizes the inevitability…of death.

While I am captivated by R&J, my reaction to the Firebird is less enthusiastic. Eschenbach’s problem begins right from the beginning, when the all-important double bass intro sounds muffled and lackluster. The more I listen, the more it sounds like music about a procrastinating duck in a wet summer afternoon than a majestic firebird in a heroic fantasy. Stravinsky’s orchestral brilliance seems suppressed until perhaps the Lullaby, but by then I am lost. The audience remains generous, rewarding Eschenbach with two calls to the podium before intermission.

After the intermission, Eschenbach continues with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, when the Maestro looses his baton in favor of bare hands. The third piece, Little Ugly Girl, captivates the audience with a mischievous melody in a familiar pentatonic scale as well as tamtam splashes that add plenty of velvety richness. But the highlight belongs to an astoundingly beautiful Schiedmayer celesta, whose soft, exquisite timbre adds a foliated sweetness to the motherly warmth of the nourishing strings section.

Anchoring two days of spectacular performance is Francesca da Rimini, where Eschenbach and the musicians seem most musically determined and alert. The moral tragedy of Francesca, immortalized in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno, is ushered in through the mastery of Eschenbach’s intense direction. Francesca, who was caught flinging with her husband’s brother, is condemned to death together with the brother. The music becomes a canvas for their damnation, in an intense series of music themes that oscillate between retelling joyous embraces of the past and foretelling the inexorable road to perdition. Here, Eschenbach deftly showcases this unique paradigm of romantic music with a boisterous fanfare in one minute, followed by subdued contemplation in the next. Immaculate cymbal work captures the fragmenting reality of yet another pair of doom-bound lovers, and marks the end of two days of excellent music making.

A poster at the NCPA, with Eschenbach getting light-sabered.

Footnote: This is Eschenbach at his best. In my opinion, the Maestro is my favorite interpreter – still alive today – of the late romantic period/impressionist/early 20th century music, next to or even on par with my much beloved but ailing Maestro Sawallisch. Eschenbach’s Francesca is the case in point: the intense ferocity and mellow grace embellishing the embrace and separation of the doomed lovers are tightly interwoven into one coherent fabric of vivid romanticism. I hope Eschenbach will return to Beijing soon.

Orchestral music

LPO/Eschenbach Day 1: Dvořák 8, 9

Date: January 5, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Antonín Dvořák wrote his Ninth symphony while visiting America, in the late 19th century. He was quoted as saying, in writing the piece, he drew much inspiration from and often alluded to the colors and textures of Native American music. Even though modern scholars have since analytically concluded – rightly or wrongly – that those textures are more attributable to Dvorak’s native land of Bohemia than to the American Midwest, a heavy handed usage of themes that evoke rolling landscapes and pastures, wherever they may be, is unmistakable.

This evening, Maestro Christoph Eschenbach highlights those themes with long, sweeping phrases, as if he were directing slow-moving herds in an Albert Bierstadt landscape of rolling hills and gentle mist. In the Largo movement, Eschenbach leads at a contemplative, measured pace, and yields plenty of maneuvering room for the much-beloved English horn solo. It is in this movement that the audience is transported into a pastoral where sandalwood-infused smoke from cottage chimneys dances into a lethargic evening. This pastoral silence is impregnated by scattered applauses soon after the final note in the second movement: that, though normally considered to be a serious faux pas in the parlance of proper concert hall manners, is not entirely inconsistent with the piece’s history: at the world premiere of the Ninth, each movement was greeted with such rapturous applause that Dvorak had to turn and take a bow. Moving on, the third movement is by comparison a little prosaic, but provides the necessary springboard to the empowering fourth movement, which is marked with such spiritual force that I wonder if the ceiling of the hall would finally crack open to give way to plenty of celestial radiance.

Dvorak’s Carnival Overture and the Eighth fill out the rest (or first-half) of the evening’s program. Eschenbach, together with the London Phil, delivers a Carnival Overture that is lively and feisty, while their Eighth, especially the first movement, is idyllic and cheery. The sequence of birdcalls and woodland voices knits nicely into yet another bucolic imagery. The strong brass section in the fourth movement brings much warmth to an audience who has to cut through an unrelenting, -15 degrees Celsius weather to get to the Egg – in one of Beijing’s coldest winters on record – to kick off the NCPA’s 2010 spring season with style and class.

LPO with Eschenbach at the NCPA.

LPO with Eschenbach.

LPO with Eschenbach

The Egg is covered with snow.

Footnote: Given the prohibitive weather, I give much credit to a well-behaved audience who definitely managed to control their coughs and sneezes well – perhaps in huge deference to the maestro and the incredible musicians of LPO. The only major blemish of the evening, notwithstanding the applause between the second and the third movements in the Ninth, occurred when some idiot decided it was high time to picnic – and for nearly 8 seconds he was trying to open what seemed like a bag of potato chips…during the second movement of the Ninth…during the English horn solo! And that idiot, sitting in the first row of the left dress circle, had the balls to do just that, not merely in front of a capacity audience but in front of Wu Yi, a former Vice Premier and an avid classical music fan, who was sitting in the first parterre row, just a few seats in front of mine and about 10 meters away from that idiot. I swear Wu heard the ruffling of the bag and reacted with a slight body movement. For a second or two, I drifted away from Dvorak’s dreamscape, and imagined how wicked cool it would be if heaven actually opened in the fourth movement, sending down a bunch of manner police to teach that idiot when not to ruffle open a bag of chips.