lunedì 7 novembre 2011

Music and the Pride of a Nation 20 settembre

Music and the Pride of a Nation
GIUSEPPE PENNISI takes a glimpse
at the Enescu Festival's jubilee programme

With the 'White Nights Festival' in St Petersburg, the Enescu Festival in Romania is one of the two most important events in Central and Eastern Europe. However, there are major differences. The 'White Nights' is annual and is, by and large, patterned after the Munich Festival: in the last month before the summer break, the Mariinskii Theatre presents all the best (and most successful) productions of the year, also as a way to appease opera lovers turned back by 'sold out' notices. The Enescu Festival is a much more complex affair. It takes place every other year but in a month (this year from 1 to 25 September), it offers as many as eighty different musical events in Bucharest and in other Romanian towns (eg Arad, Cluj, Craiova, Sibiu, Timisoara and Târgu-Mures) where Enescu lived and worked. This is the twentieth year of the Festival; thus a major Jubilee Program has been prepared and the former Director General of the Vienna Opera, Mr Joan Hollender has been invited to manage and coordinate it.

A scene from Enescu's 'Oedipe' at the jubilee Enescu Festival in Bucharest. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
The eighty musical events include three operas (including a new production of George Enescu's rarely performed Oedipe), several ballets (staged by companies from all over the world), a large number of symphony concerts where twenty-six Romanian orchestras are 'competing' with groups such as the Weiner Philharmoniker (conducted by Franz Welser-Möst), the Israel Philharmonic (with Zubin Mehta), Berlin Staatkapelle (Daniel Barenboim), Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (Antonio Pappano), Orchestre National de France (Daniele Gatti), London Symphony Orchestra (Horia Andrescu), Mariinskii Theatre Symphony Orchestra (Valery Gergiev), Hungarian National Philharmonic (Zoltan Kocsis), Gulbenkian Symphony Orchestra (Lawrence Foster) and other similar stars.
Along with this main venue, there are other interesting paths, such as an exploration of 'Enescu and his contemporaries' (chamber music interpreted by young soloists and internationally appreciated ensembles), a series on 'World Music' based on the specific contributions that, both as composer and teacher, Enescu gave to Indian, Argentinian, Yiddish and Middle Eastern (especially Lebanese) music, and a 'New Music Workshop' focusing on contemporary music, mostly by young composers (from all over the world). Finally, there is the internationally known Enescu Competition -- this year in four sections: composition, piano, violin and cello.

George Enescu. Click on the image for higher resolution
Such a wholly-encompassing program may look extravagant. Alternatively, it may tempt music lovers to move to Bucharest, and other Romanian towns, for a full month. However, there is much more than meets the eye. George Enescu was, no doubt, the major Romanian musician both as composer and as a soloist of piano, violin and cello. His tours brought him all over the world. Among his students were Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Christian Ferras and Uto Ughi -- to name only a very few, among the most widely known. He enabled Western Europe and the USA to become acquainted with Romanian music. He had a major influence on at least two generations of composers and performers. He himself had studied with Gabriel Fauré, but was influenced by Middle European music, especially by Richard Strauss and Karol Zsymanowsky. The tribute Romania pays to Enescu is essentially a testimony of how music can restore the pride of a nation and shows how classical music can surpass the barriers of culture and history.

Sucevita Monastery in northeastern Romania. Photo © 2000 Keith Bramich. Click on the image for higher resolution
As we all know, Romania has had a complicated history as a Latin nation surrounded by the Slavonic and the Muslim worlds, as well as with German and Hungarian enclaves and nomadic people such as the Roma. Romania gained independence late in the nineteenth century and patterned its capital after Paris, but had a very complex twentieth century, and it was less than twenty-five years ago that the country became free from a hideous dictatorship that had severed links with most of the world.

Nicolae Ceausescu's huge and monstrous Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest. Photo © 2001 Keith Bramich. Click on the image for higher resolution
Enescu himself died in Paris, in semi-self-imposed exile. Although attendance of the eighty events by foreign audience members is relatively small, the Enescu Festival theatres, auditoriums and halls are crowded to their hilt by Romanians; for them, for their many artists (about eighteen hundred foreign artists and some thirteen hundred Romanian artists), the Festival and its international standing are a demonstration that the nation is united, cohesive, respected and central to the rest of Europe. Also it is a way to show how Bucharest is being restored to its past splendor of art deco and secession architecture, large boulevards but also a Byzantine touch (mainly in the churches) and oriental flavors (in the old city's small lanes crowded with open air restaurants and carry-out joints).

A Bucharest street scene. Photo © 2000 Keith Bramich. Click on the image for higher resolution
As I could spend only a few days in Bucharest, I had to be quite selective. I chose Enescu's only opera Oedipe, a chamber music concert by the Chicago Fine Arts String Quartet strengthened by the pianist Alexandra Costin, the major symphony concert of the Wiener Philharmoniker, and the 'Mandelring' Quartet with Amy Dickson on sax. A sample of a variety of scores, mostly from the first part of the nineteenth century. I could get a glimpse and whet my appetite to come back for a longer stay in 2013.

The Fine Arts String Quartet at the Enescu Festival. Photo © 2011 Alexandra Jitariuc. Click on the image for higher resolution
On Oedipe Yehudi Menuhin wrote: 'As long as I knew my beloved and great teacher, George Enescu, the score of his overwhelming opera was by his side. Night and day, instead of sleeping after and between concerts, he would work on his monumental opus. His love for his native land connected him to a pagan past, to people rooted in ancient wisdom, and the Greek legend of Oedipus became the vessel into which he distilled the music of his life'. For the Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich, who promoted Oedipe's revival at the Brussels La Monnaie Opera House in 1956, the monumental masterwork must be reckoned as being on a par with Pelléas, Wozzeck, Lulu, and Die Soldaten as one of the highest operatic points of the nineteenth century. Yet, it is little known outside Romania. It is only briefly mentioned in the new updated French edition of the Kobbé, but there is no reference to it in either Stanley Sadie's huge Grove Book of Operas -- Second Edition or in the otherwise thorough Opera in the Nineteenth Century by Ethan Mordden.

A scene from Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
What are the reasons for such an oblivion for an opera that required twenty-five years to compose and was acclaimed at its première in the Parisian Palais Garnier in 1936? Firstly, the Oedipus myth was very much 'in' in the first part of the nineteenth century -- for example, at that time, Stravinsky composed his Oedipus Rex on a Latin text by Jean Cocteau; this was in line with the development of psychoanalysis as a profession and Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus, The King may have been seen as an Agatha Christie psycho thriller where everybody but the killer knows 'who has done it'. However, Enescu's opera (and Edmond Fleg's libretto) depart from this path: the crux of the work is whether man can fight Fate and win -- the conclusion is that man is stronger than Fate but that Fate is greater than man. In this conception, the plot of Oedipus, The King is dealt with only in the third of the four acts of Enescu's Oedipe. The first and the second acts are based on ancient Greek legends and deal with the birth of Oedipus, his growing up, his killing of his father (not knowingly and in self-defense) and marrying his own mother (again without being aware of it). The short fourth act is only broadly based on Sophocles' Oedipus in Colon: the setting is Athens where Oedipus finds peace, loses his blindness and recognizes the power of the Almighty. Thus, the audience does not find a Greek thriller but a long road to the understanding of humanity and its heights.

A scene from Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
Secondly, Oedipe is a demanding opera to stage: four acts and six different scenes, a huge symphony orchestra strengthened by traditional Romanian instruments, a double chorus, a children chorus, a corps de ballet with étoile for a pas-de-deux, fifteen principal singers, of whom a baritone, a bass, a tenor, a mezzo and a alto have very demanding roles as the vocal lines go from Sprechgesang to arioso, and include pure song (including Romanian traditional songs) through groans, whispers and glissando moans. Such complex writing is not only for the soloists but also for the chorus. Nor is the orchestration any easier; in short, a gigantic orchestra like, eg for Strauss' Elektra, but in a very subtle manner, restrained for two reasons: on the one hand, the orchestra never covers Fleg's verses; on the other, when they do take place, the orchestral outbursts are all the more powerful and effective. The orchestral writing has similarities with that of Darius Milhaud, Richard Strauss and Karol Szymanowski, but with a difference: the Wagnerian style Fate leit-motif at several moments in the score. No doubt the staging difficulties are compounded by the orchestral, choral and soloists' difficulties and call for several weeks of rehearsal -- a cost that few opera houses can afford. A final point: the first two acts are quite sensual, almost erotic, the third is highly dramatic; the fourth transcendental. This mix was a good fit for Paris in the 1930s, but may not be so much in tune with today's audience.

A scene from Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
After its Belgian revival, Oedipe reached the Romanian National Opera in 1958 in translation, but in the last ten years, it is back in its original French text. In Romania, it is considered 'the National opera'; it is in repertory and every five to ten years a new production is prepared. It is occasionally performed in German theatres, but very seldom presented in other countries. I am fortunate since I have seen the première of the only Italian production in Cagliari in January 2005 -- six performances that nearly bankrupted the Teatro Lirico of the Sardinian capital.

Stefan Ignat in the title role of Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
I can compare it with the new Bucharest production, unveiled in a fully packed house on 15 September 2011 and due to remain in repertory until about 2020.

The Romanian National Opera House in Bucharest. Click on the image for higher resolution
A few words about the staging. Cagliari's Teatro Lirico is modern and has up-to-date equipment, whereas the Bucharest National Opera is a delightful 1921 theater of Austrian-German art deco style: in addition to the parterre, there are two rows of large boxes and a balcony where the audience can listen and see well from every row. Most likely, since 1921, the Romanian authorities have had more pressing needs than updating their National Opera's stage machinery. In Cagliari, Graham Vick, Thin Northam and Ken Howell conjured up colossal sets (to the best of my memory never utilized after those seven performances in Sardinia). In Bucharest, Anda Tabacaru Hogea (watch her: she is up and coming in Central European stage direction) and Viorica Petrovici opted for a very simple stage set for the four acts. Lighting is in the style of Adolphe Appia (like the sets and lighting one would see in Bayreuth until the mid-1970s). Costumes are sumptuous.

A scene from Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
The two levels of the set are joined by two round staircases. In short you have the sense of the opera (a net on the protagonist) and an inexpensive transportable production without Graham Vick's Hollywood style paraphernalia. I have only a critical notation to the staging: the opera is only formally in four acts, but substantially in a short prologue, two long acts and a short epilogue. Correctly, the first and the second act are played and performed without intermission, but the intermission between the third and the fourth act breaks the musical and the dramatic tension. Ms Anda Tabacaru Hogea may wish to think about it in refining the production.

A scene from Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
The orchestra was conducted by the young Tiberiu Soare (in Cagliari, the conductor was his mentor Christian Mandeal), a graduate of a past Enescu competition. He had at his disposal an orchestra larger and more intimately familiar with the complex score than Mandeal did in Cagliari. Similar comments can be made for the choral parts. The orchestral and choral outbursts were really exceptional as well as the intricate intertwining of musical themes and cells and the use of traditional Romanian musical instruments.

Stefan Ignat in the title role of Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
The singers were uneven; I have a similar recollection of the Italian-Romanian-French cast in Cagliari. Stefan Ignat was an impressive protagonist (both in Bucharest and in Cagliari); he is one of the few baritones who can take up the taxing role.

Valentin Racoveanu in Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
Horia Sandu (as Tiresias) and Valentin Racoveanu (as the shepherd) were both very good. In the women's group, Ecaterina Tutu as the Sphinx was just excellent. I wonder why she was not entrusted also with the role of Jocasta, as both roles are often performed by one singer. The two parts are comparatively short and the Sphinx does not need to be an alto but may also be a mezzo with good grave tonalities. Oana Andra (Jocasta, 15 September) was quite weak. Simona Neagu was a good Antigone. There were real accolades and a standing ovation at the end of this new production of the Romanian national operatic masterpiece.

A scene from Enescu's 'Oedipe'. Photo © 2011 Diana Grigore. Click on the image for higher resolution
Only a few comments (emphasizing Enescu) on the three concerts I attended while in Bucharest. On 16 September, I went to a chamber music concert in the afternoon and to a symphony concert in the evening. The chamber music was in a very special place I had already visited on a previous visit to Bucharest: the 1888 Ateneul Roman, a very elegant neo-Byzantine concert hall with two rows of boxes. It is now used almost only for chamber music but way back in 2003 I enjoyed a symphonic music concert there; its stage can accommodate some thirty to forty performers. The Chicago Fine Arts String Quartet -- an ensemble established some sixty-five years ago -- was supplemented with the young Romanian pianist Alexandra Costin. The Enescu Quintet in A minor was presented in the second part after Haydn's elegant Quartet in G major and Schumann's romantic Quartet in A major; both a fresh breeze after Oedipe. Juxtaposed to these quartets, Enescu's quintet sounded very dramatic and, at the same time, quite languid. A highly professional performance which fully deserved the applause of a Friday afternoon audience.

Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat: Fanny Clamagirand, violin, and Antoine Tamestit, viola, with Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Bucharest's Great Palace Hall at the Enescu Festival. Photo © 2011 Alexandra Jitariuc. Click on the image for higher resolution
The evening concert was in the Great Hall, originally conceived for four thousand people but with a number of devices reduced to three thousand for better acoustics. The Weiner Philharmoniker were conducted by Franz Welser Möst; two young artists, Fanny Clamagirand and Antoine Tamestit, were, respectively, the violin and viola soloists. First came Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major. It is always an experience to listen to the Wiener Philharmoniker, even far from Vienna and Salzburg; this time the precision of their touch was enhanced by the two young virtuosi. Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante is a masterpiece of sweet and serene ambiguity.

Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Bucharest's Great Palace Hall at the Enescu Festival. Photo © 2011 Alexandra Jitariuc. Click on the image for higher resolution
The main fare of the second part was Dvorák's Symphony No 5 in F major; a piece full of rhythm and light. In the middle came Enescu with his short string Intermezzi for strings Op 12 with a dark tint. The audience overflowed the Great Hall, was enthusiastic and asked for and obtained an encore.

George Enescu. Click on the image for higher resolution
The Saturday 17 September lunchtime concert, in an auditorium apparently conceived for modern music, was rather peculiar. The German Mandelring Quartet and the internationally known (and quite attractive) Australian Amy Dickson on sax offered music from the 1930s to the 1950s. The Enescu Quartet in A major Op 22 started the concert: an interesting composition where one can listen to the Vienna school gently sliding into jazz. The rest of the concert included similar pieces by Maurice Ravel, Leon Stein and Alphonse Stallaert. The hall was not full (it was lunch time!) but the audience appreciated the performance.
The Festival continues until 25 September 2011 and is well worth a trip, if you are still in time to book tickets. Otherwise, make a reservation for the next round in 2013.
Copyright © 20 September 2011 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy

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