composer for film, theater, and TV

Oedipe: an opera is not just 3 hours of music

L’avenir te dira, si la Sphinge en mourant pleure de sa défaite, ou rit de sa victoire!

Future will tell if the dying Sphinx cries for her defeat or laughs for her victory!

A couple of weeks ago I went to the premiere of George Enescu’s opera Oedipe, a 3-hour long, French-language setting of the Greek tragedy by Sophocles.  It was quite an experience, not entirely what I expected, but an experience nonetheless. Let’s begin, shall we?

First of all, some background info. I guess we all know already the story: the guy was doomed by the gods since birth, and was supposed to kill his father and fuck his mother. Nice stuff. He tries to escape his destiny but ultimately discovers that there is no escape from the gods. Tears of his eyes, his mother/wife kills herself and all live quite disturbed ever after. Some guy named Freud wrote some stuff about him some years later, and since then he became quite a known figure.

It took Enescu 18 years to complete the opera, it seems. First sketches began actually in 1910, when he was 29 years old. The libretto was written by Edmond Fleg, with a first draft being delivered 3 years later. All in all, it was quite a lengthy project, and it is considered by many as his masterpiece. It is also particular in his sympathetic treatment of the main character: in the end he is allowed to enter the realm of the goddesses of the forest, after having endured such great suffering.

But let’s see, how was the opera, really?

First of all, let me say I really liked Àlex Ollé’s vision. I found maybe a bit too much the idea of Oedipus’ mother being dressed as a sort of psychoanalyst, it was a bit too obvious for me. Apart from that, I think that he made quite a great job with trying to guide us through an opera and libretto that can be difficult at best and incomprehensible at times.

Now let’s go to the music, which is what I’ve been wanting to talk about.

As I mention in the title, I think that writing music for an opera is very different than writing a symphony or a Romanian Rhapsody (great piece, by the way, do check it out). In such pieces, a composer is mostly dealing with abstract musical material, finding connections and transitions that have to do with the music itself. The length of a particular section, the key in which a melody is played, and the orchestration of a specific passage, for example, are all dictated by principles that are to be found in the structure of the music itself, even if there is some underlying theme (such as in symphonic poems, which often refer to literature).

An opera is quite different. First of all, the composer needs to consider oftentimes a huge amount of text that needs to be set to music, which in itself requires a very different approach. Second, there is the meaning of the text, the thoughts and emotions behind the words, what the characters mean but don’t say, or what they say and don’t mean. All this has to have an effect in the music. Also there’s the action itself, how do the tensions between the characters evolve during the opera? What problems do they face? Where is the climax of the piece? Very often, these elements are not dictated by a logical musical construction but rather by the emotional or thematic content of the text itself. Then, there’s also the fact that actors need time to move onstage, scene changes often take time as well, and all these elements need to fit within the dramatic arch of the music.

You see this very well in Italian opera, I think, such as Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seviglia (a wonderful production by the Dutch National Opera from a couple months ago), where by the end of each act he builds up a climax by bringing all the characters onstage in messy, chaotic tutti that reflect the uncertainty or chaos of a the end of an act. Or in Wagner, where he takes 45 minutes in a love duet in Tristan und Isolde because of the philosophical weight it entails: we need all this exposure to understand both emotionally and intellectually why Isolde is going to be transfigured at the end of the 4-hour long opera (maybe we’re even transfigured ourselves).

I feel Enescu has great trouble doing this in his opera. The 3 hours it takes from beginning to end seem sometimes to last forever, but not in a good way. It very often feels the music doesn’t know where to go, and is left with few resources but a sort of exchange between tutti moments which sometimes feel like oddly-placed climaxes, and more sparse moments where it seems the singers are just trying to count the seconds onstage until something happens. This is very problematic, because it makes the listener feel lost in the waves of orchestral swells, French philosophy, and abstract scenography, and it made me, at least, feel like taking a nap during some sections that seemed to drag on forever. It also removed all the importance of the epilogue, where we see Oedipus being forgiven, because we already had quite a conclusive ending for the previous act, and by now we’ve lost all interest in what will happen next.

I don’t think this is because Enescu is a bad composer. Just listen to pieces like his Violin Sonata No. 3 to get immersed in a huge amount of Romanian drama. Beautiful piece. But, and here’s the thing, it’s also abstract music. I think Enescu was primarily a composer of abstract, concert music. This causes great trouble when writing an opera (and maybe it’s also the reason why it took him so terribly long to finish it) because his approach will necessarily come from an abstract, musical perspective, and not a dramatic one. He focuses on how this melodic theme will develop, how this chord progression will transform into this other one, and not where the action is going, or how does the series of events in the play lead to the inevitable climax. This gives the feeling that the music is kind of lost in a sea of time (3 hours is quite a bit of time to cover), and makes the text even more difficult to understand than it already is. Wagner understood this problem and worked with leitmotifs that guide the listener to key concepts in the text. This is not the only way, of course, but it shows how his approach is already more drama-based.

I find it really interesting to go to operas that maybe I don’t enjoy so much, because they give food for thought. How would you deal with such a material? Writing an opera is certainly no easy job, and I would love some day to be faced with such a challenge. What would you or I do in Enescu’s place? That’s quite a question. Also, I wish I ever get the chance to work with such a spectacular libretto.

George Enescu’s Oedipe is now at the National Opera and Ballet in Amsterdam, Netherlands, until the 25th of December. Merry Christmas! You can buy tickets here.

Image source (here)