A Classic Updated: Enescu's All-Embracing 'Oedipe'

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woo-1646-oedipe mainThe legendary cellist Pablo Casals once called George Enescu "the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart" -- and with considerable justification.  Enescu, like Mozart, displayed extraordinary abilities at an early age, and continued to demonstrate his genius throughout a remarkable career.

Enescu was born in 1881, and started playing the violin when he was four.  At age five, when he was taught to write music down on paper, he immediately began composing.  He entered a conservatory in Vienna when he was seven, and graduated at age 12.  At one point, he is said to have memorized Richard Wagner's entire Ring cycle.  

In his mid-teens, Enescu studied composition in Paris with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Faure, alongside classmates including Maurice Ravel.  Before he reached twenty, he was conducting his own works back in Bucharest, where he was already hailed as a major force in Romanian music.

At that point, and through much of his career, Enescu's own music wasn't his main calling card.  It was his violin.  By the time World War I began, Enescu had travelled much of Europe as a renowned violin virtuoso, and beginning in the 1920s his itinerary expanded to include the United States.  In 1925, one of his appearances inspired the young violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who sought Enescu out and studied with him for many years.

But throughout his career, and even at the height of his fame as a performer, Enescu led two, very different musical lives.  During the concert season he was based in Paris, and crisscrossed the world giving concerts and recitals.  In the offseason, he retreated to the Romanian countryside to compose, eventually completing an impressive catalogue of works ranging from large scale symphonies and orchestral suites, to chamber works, to music for his own use as a violinist.  Yet despite the variety of his output, there was one work that was Enescu's musical companion for more than two decades:  his single opera, Oedipe.

Enescu began the opera in 1910, after seeing a production of the Oedipus the King, the classic drama by Sophocles.  The opera's libretto, written in French by Edmond Fleg, incorporates elements of all three dramas known as Sophocles' "Theban Plays," and also uses other legends surrounding its title character, giving Enescu's Oedipe one of the few narratives that covers the entire life of Oedipus.

The opera wasn't completed, even in draft, for more than ten years, and even then Enescu wasn't satisfied with it.  He worked on the score for another decade or so, finally completing it in the early 1930s.  Its premiere took place in Paris, in 1936.

Enescu continued to be acclaimed as a virtuoso performer, but his reputation as a composer grew as his career progressed.  He died in 1955, and by now he's widely-regarded as his country's greatest musician, with Oedipe often hailed as the finest single work ever composed by a Romanian.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Oedipe from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London.  The international cast features Danish baritone Johan Reuter as Oedipus, English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly as Jocasta and Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the Sphinx, in a production led by conductor Leo Hussain.

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