Hubert Francis as Laïos, Nicolas Courjal as the Theban High Priest, and Sarah Connolly as Jocaste in George Enescu’s Oedipe, at the Royal Opera House, London

Royal Opera House/Clive Barda

Hubert Francis as Laïos, Nicolas Courjal as the Theban High Priest, and Sarah Connolly as Jocaste in George Enescu’s Oedipe, at the Royal Opera House, London

In 1911, when Gilbert Murray completed his translation of Oedipus the King, George Bernard Shaw wrote to him to suggest that it was time for a modern rewriting of Sophocles’ play. Shaw proposed that a “great poetic and psychological drama” would emerge if Oedipus, instead of blinding himself on his discovery that he has been married to his own mother, were to defiantly reject accusations that he had committed the ultimate outrage. He would reply, “‘Scandalous as it seems, I don’t feel like that at all.’ And a conflict with public opinion follows.”

After all, Shaw suggested, there is nothing odd in the desire to sleep with one’s mother: “I very seldom dream of my mother; but when I do, she is my wife as well as my mother.” In this, Shaw had the sanction of Oedipus’s own wife and mother, Jocasta, who tells him (in Robert Fagles’s translation of Sophocles): “Many a man before you,/in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.” But dreams are one thing and actions quite another. Oedipus really kills his father and has four children with Jocasta, making him a brother to his own daughters. He defiles the natural order. He distorts time itself by becoming, in a sense, his own father.

As slogans go, “Oedipus is innocent” may therefore seem a hard sell. (The effects on the vocabulary of many rappers of ceasing to regard having sex with one’s mother as ignominious don’t bear thinking about.) Yet Shaw seems to have forgotten that his idea was not new. His radical modern play in which Oedipus shrugs off shame and challenges the revulsion of the citizens was actually written a very long time ago—by Sophocles himself.

Around twenty years after Oedipus the King and shortly before his own death, Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus. Here, the fallen king, now an old blind beggar, is granted a kind of apotheosis, gradually transformed from a human wretch to a supernatural power whose secret burial place will protect Athens against its enemies. And this Oedipus does indeed defy public opinion. Sophocles gives him a fierce speech in which he defines himself not as a great sinner but as a great sufferer. He points out that he acted all along in good faith and committed his horrible crimes against his will:

I am innocent! Pure in the eyes of the law,
blind, unknowing, I, I came to this!

What makes George Enescu’s opera Oedipe, just produced by the Royal Opera in London, arguably the greatest twentieth-century retelling of the story is that it takes this defiance all the way. It fully embraces the redemptive theme of Oedipus at Colonus and transforms the apparently bleak myth into a ritual in which the very scale of the suffering Oedipus withstands turns him from social pariah to spiritual paragon.

The most immediate question about Oedipe, which had its premiere at the Paris Grand Opera in March 1936 and played for a modest eleven performances before disappearing from the repertory of the major international opera houses, is why those of us who are not music scholars are unlikely to have heard of it. Enescu, born in 1881 in Moldavia in the northeast of Romania, achieved considerable fame both as a violinist and as a conductor in Europe and the US. His pupil Yehudi Menuhin described him in 1990 as “the greatest musician and the most formative influence I have ever experienced.”

In his excellent critical biography of Enescu, published in 1990, Noel Malcolm quotes Pablo Casals as calling him, “in the depth and range of his gifts, the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart.”1 Yet his masterwork, Oedipe, arrived at the Royal Opera, in a splendid production that originated at La Monnaie in Brussels in 2011, as an unknown quantity.

Enescu suffered, perhaps, from being both too Romanian and not Romanian enough. On the one hand, the popularity of his early Romanian Rhapsodies and his borrowings from folk tunes and Orthodox church music pigeonholed him as a “national” (which really means provincial) composer. On the other, his musical cosmopolitanism, voluntary exile, largely in Paris where he died in 1955, and hatred for chauvinistic nationalism were repellent to the Ceaușescu regime. His fame as a violinist and conductor occluded his achievements as a composer. And he was unfashionably devoid of artistic angst. As Malcolm puts it:

Enescu remained angelically untouched by any sense of the “crisis” of modern music; his works are free of all the devices of irony, pastiche and alienation by which other composers proclaimed their view that direct, unselfconscious expression in music was no longer possible.

With Oedipe itself, however, there are more specific reasons for neglect. As a version of the myth, Enescu’s opera is at odds with the dominant twentieth-century take on Sophocles. The template was set, of course, by Sigmund Freud, whose Oedipus complex merely replaces the cruel gods of the Greek world with the deep and ineluctable forces of unconscious desire. This version infected countless productions of Hamlet, reducing that complex character to a puppet of his unconscious desires to sleep with his mother Gertrude and kill his “father” Claudius.


But it also shaped the Oedipus myth as the ultimate in cold determinism. The redemption of Oedipus at Colonus disappeared—Oedipus was to be seen only as a mockery of human pretensions to free will. He represents mankind as the universe’s sick joke, the plaything of a cruel god who has long since determined his grotesque fate. In Paris in the 1930s, when Enescu’s opera appeared, the vastly more successful version of the Oedipus story was Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine, a play much more in tune with the mood of that dark decade. In its prelude, a voice tells the audience that the Oedipus story is merely the relentless working out of a mechanical inevitability:

This machine, you see here wound up to the full in such a way that the spring will slowly unwind the whole length of a human life, is one of the most perfect constructed by the infernal gods for the mathematical destruction of a mortal.

Enescu’s version, by contrast, is driven by an ultimate faith in the human capacity to transcend even the cruelest machinations of destiny. In the original myth, the Sphinx asks Oedipus, “What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the day, and three legs in the evening?” Oedipus, of course, answers, “Man.” But in the libretto by the Swiss-French (and Jewish) playwright Edmond Fleg for Enescu’s opera, the Sphinx asks a very different question. Having explained that its father is the all-powerful Destiny, it asks Oedipus: Is there anything in the universe that is stronger than Destiny? Oedipus gives the same answer: mankind. As in the original story this answer defeats and kills the Sphinx but it has one final taunt: “The future will show you whether the dying Sphinx is crying for its defeat or laughing in its victory.” The drama of the opera lies in a genuine tension between two equally powerful possibilities: that Oedipus is deluding himself and that he might after all be right.

To understand what Enescu is doing, it might be useful to evoke the anachronistic distinction between signal and noise. In the Oedipus story, the signal—the pattern or code—is the prophecy of the oracle that Oedipus is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother. The noise is Oedipus’s struggle against and reaction to this destiny—all the vivid action, from killing the Sphinx to blinding himself in shame. And the dominant twentieth-century versions of the myth are almost all signal and little noise. The preset pattern is the thing—the human struggle against it is so much sound and fury. What Enescu does, however, is, both literally and metaphorically, to make a beautiful noise. He is much truer to Sophocles in the way he dignifies Oedipus’s struggle against the cold determinism of the plot.

The opera shows what Sophocles tells—the full story of Oedipus from his birth to his assumption into the realm of the supernatural when the Furies (now the kindly Eumenides) lead him to his secret grave. It plays up the redemptive possibilities of the story, especially by enhancing the role of Oedipus’s faithful daughter Antigone. (The father’s farewell to his daughter near the end is as poignant as Wotan’s to Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring.) It plays down, on the other hand, the breathtaking fury of Oedipus’s bitterness in Oedipus at Colonus—his savage curse on his sons, Polynices and Etiocles, whom he dooms to die by each other’s hand, is excised. In this respect, the opera is much more linear than the original plays, taking its hero on a spiritual journey through triumph to unbearable suffering and on through heroic self-knowledge to transcendence. Its great daring lies in the way it takes the most viscerally shocking of the Greek myths and turns it into a Christian ritual in which the great sinner becomes strangely Christlike.

This might have been too soft. To take just one telling detail, in Oedipus at Colonus there is a superbly moving moment when Oedipus asks the sympathetic king of Athens, Theseus, to take his hand, and then realizes that of course he will not do so—Oedipus has momentarily forgotten that he is literally untouchable. But in the opera, Theseus unselfconsciously touches him and indeed, at the end, Oedipus’s own touch is even seen as life-giving and holy. On their own, such moments might suggest that the myth has been so watered down as to become anodyne.


Johan Reuter as Oedipe with members of the Royal Opera Chorus in Oedipe

Royal Opera House/Clive Barda

Johan Reuter as Oedipe with members of the Royal Opera Chorus in Oedipe

That, however, would be to reckon without the wonders of Enescu’s music. The great achievement of the opera is the way Enescu manages the relationship between the music and the action. Oedipe breaks decisively from the Wagnerian ideal of forcing all the elements of the opera to work together at all times. Enescu’s music is not rhetorical—it does not comment on or underline the action. It becomes, rather, a parallel spiritual universe, a realm of freedom and indeterminacy that runs alongside the deterministic realm of the cruel gods who are in charge of the action on the stage.

The marvelous thing about Enescu’s music is that although it is as meticulously detailed as that of any opera ever written, it feels almost improvised. Its tones are mostly dark: the dominant role of Oedipus is given to a bass-baritone (in London, the charismatic Johan Reuter) and the score constantly tends toward the chromatic effects that audiences have been taught to associate with anxiety and gloom. The orchestra is big, enhanced with piano, harmonium, celesta, glockenspiel, even a saw that echoes and sustains the Sphinx’s dying notes. But instead of producing a coercive wall of sound, Enescu works all the time to keep alive for the listener each of the many layers in his richly textured orchestration. And he uses this multiplicity of sound to enhance the quicksilver unpredictability of his music.

We never know quite where Enescu is going. At times, we seem to be entering territory already well mapped by Debussy and Fauré, but these intimations of the familiar always give way to an intriguing strangeness. On the large-scale level he moves from a ceremonial opening inflected with folk and church influences to the startlingly atonal derangement of the Sphinx to the pure lyricism of the last act. Within these large structures, individual passages seem to have a will of their own, moving off in surprising (and surprisingly delightful) directions.

This musical unpredictability is essential to the overall drama because it contradicts the whole idea of the plot: that what happens to Oedipus is not merely predictable but actually foreseen and foreordained. And an important part of Enescu’s attack on determinism is his distinctive use of leitmotifs. Wagner, of course, uses leitmotifs in a deterministic way—characters and themes are defined by their rigid association with a musical phrase or effect. Enescu uses leitmotifs, but they are kinetic, flexible, and mobile, constantly shifting in their associations. They determine nothing—instead they give to the music of Oedipe a thrilling openness, a sense of freedom that is all the more heady because it counterpoints the apparently rigid mechanics of the story.

From a dramatic point of view, the main difficulty with Oedipe is that it consists of two very different parts. The first two acts are not drawn directly from Sophocles; the last two acts, on the other hand, are a very skillful distillation of, respectively, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. Thus, for the first half of the opera, we have Fleg’s dramatization of Oedipus’s backstory: the prophecy at his birth that he will kill his father and marry his mother; the attempt to avoid this fate by leaving the infant on the mountain; his rescue by a shepherd and adoption at Corinth by King Polybos and Queen Merope; his discovery of the prophecy and flight from Corinth; his killing of his real father, King Laios, and his encounter with the Sphinx. But with the second half of the opera, we enter the much more stringent and restrained form of Sophocles’ psychological drama. Thus, the first half is epic and the second tragic, or, as the composer Pascal Bentoui puts it in his study of Enescu, “the first two acts are affiliated with a Romantic way of perception and construction, while the last two subscribe to a Classical way.”2

The directors of the Royal Opera House production, Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco, tackle this problem in a way that might seem perverse: they make the episodic first half of the opera more static. The opening coup de théâtre is a vast tableau of what seem like painted or projected figures, arrayed on a huge four-tier construction, coming to life. The dance that Enescu intended to celebrate Oedipus’s birth is cut and the folkloric elements are played down. The Sphinx, when we encounter it, is literally grounded: its wings are those of a World War II–era fighter plane brought to earth. The visual references are largely twentieth-century—high-visibility jackets, the Spanish civil war, the Theban plague as a nuclear disaster. This anti-Romantic approach is surprisingly successful (though Oedipus’s killing of his father is so reduced that it lacks all dramatic weight) and it does much to unify Fleg’s additions and Sophocles’ originals.

These grungy visual effects keep any danger of mere uplift at bay. Oedipus’s journey toward transcendence remains a hard road through the desolate terrain of utter abjection. But Enescu’s brilliance makes us feel that there really is some imaginative freedom beyond the infernal machine of destiny. The weight of guilt is lifted in his defiantly humane music. Oedipus is innocent.