Mark Berlin as your top destination right now if you are a fan of works related to Sophocles' Oedipus. Three productions have opened within the last few days all centring on this work: Enescu's Œdipe at the Komische Oper Berlin (in French), Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek on the parking lot of the Deutsche Oper (in English), and Sophocles' play at the Deutsches Theater (in German). Coincidence, say the artistic administrators.

Leigh Melrose (Œdipe)
© Monika Rittershaus

Romanian-born George Enescu took both works by Sophocles – Oedipus and Oedipus at Conolos – and worked them into his only opera, which took him the better part of 20 years to compose the work, premiering in Paris in 1936.

For Komische Oper, Kazakhstan-born stage director Evgeny Titov has given the four-act, six-scene work a timeless dramatic interpretation, setting it within the stark confines of a unit set by Rufus Didwiszus. A giant cube with distressed metal walls surrounds a square basin that fills with water during the course of the evening, forcing all the singers to go around it or wade through it, symbolically contaminating themselves with the knowledge of the crimes committed. There is no sense of time, space or nature. Eve Dessecker's costumes give a hint that this drama has occurred in mythological times but could still occur today with the use of baggy, unisex, loose-fitting shirts and trousers for everybody except the leading female roles, Jocaste and Mérope, who wears a fifties style Schiaparelli-pink costume. The sun is represented by a contraption of connected, white, neon tubes. All is artifice, fate is an endless bloody path. Titov builds his operatic dystopia on the simultaneity of images and figures that can overlap or detach, as if in memories.  

Karolina Gumos (Jocaste), Johannes Dunz (Shepherd), Shavleg Armasi (Watchman)
© Monika Rittershaus

Edmond Fleg's libretto is used in the original French. It deals with the fateful life of the Greek mythological figure of Œdipe, framing it between birth and death or better: death and transfiguration. Œdipe is on stage from the very beginning, watching the ritual surrounding his own birth to the King and Queen of Thebes, and how, in order to avoid the oracle's prediction, he is abandoned in a valley. There the baby is found by a shepherd who gives it to the King and Queen of Corinth, who raise him as their own son. The oracle's prophecy is nonetheless fulfilled when, as a grown man, he kills the Sphinx which threatens the city, then his father King Laios and weds his widow (and own mother) Queen Jocaste – and has four children by her – before ripping out his own eyes when he finds out the truth in order to atone for his sins. Enter his gentle daughter Antigone who finally leads him to a safe place where he can die peacefully.

Enescu's compelling music is reminiscent of Debussy's in its melodic writing, which flows endlessly. In this current version, the original score has been shortened to a playing time of just under two hours without intermission, to comply with pandemic regulations. The Komische Opera's music director, Ainārs Rubiķis, totally involves himself with the work's emotional cadences, leading the orchestra through the sometimes haunting, almost crudely drawn, breathless climaxes and ecstasies.

Œdipe has a strong choral component, and the choral soloists of the Komische Oper, complemented and supported by the Vocal Consort Berlin and the in-house children's choir, took up positions in the second tier of the house, behind and above the audience. David Cavelius coordinated the chorus from the sidelines. The ethereal, disembodied sound that enveloped the listener was quite magical.

Jens Larsen (Tirésias), Leigh Melrose (Œdipe) and Karolina Gumos (Jocaste)
© Monika Rittershaus

British baritone Leigh Melrose, as Œdipe, is on stage from the very beginning, imbuing his character with the strong emotional and dramatic vocal acting required of the role. He achieved this admirably and was, quite rightly, effusively celebrated at the end.

Melrose was supported by mezzo-soprano Karolina Gumos as his mother-wife Jocaste, who savoured the tensions between pain and elation in her singing and acting. As the Sphinx, Katarina Bradić confronted Œdipe with musically insane leaps and glissandi sung with androgynous eloquence. Bass Jens Larsen, as Tirésias, impressively filled the role of the blind seer explaining the oracle's riddle, speaking, gasping, half singing. Among the other well-cast soloists, Mirka Wagner had just a few lines as Œdipe's faithful daughter, Antigone, who finally leads her blind father to Colonus, where he can find a peaceful death.  

“The hopeless but persistent struggle against one's own fate is per se a victory,” Titov states in an interview on the essence of the piece. This production shows how contemporary the struggles for one's own identity continue to be. 

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