Sometimes, in a rare outing of a little-performed opera, you understand why the piece has languished in obscurity. It was the opposite for George Enescu’s Oedipe, given its first ever performance at the Royal Opera last night. Enescu’s score is a work of utter genius which deserves to be a core part of standard repertoire.

Hubert Francis (Laïos), Nicolas Courjal (Theban High Priest) and Sarah Connolly (Jocaste) © ROH | Clive Barda
Hubert Francis (Laïos), Nicolas Courjal (Theban High Priest) and Sarah Connolly (Jocaste)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Although their sound worlds are so different, Enescu reminds me of Britten: there is a profusion of orchestral moods and timbres which, in the hands of lesser beings, would turn to muddle. Here, though, every note gives a profound feeling of rightness: Enescu cannot write an ugly note, even in the frightening harshness of big climaxes. When he turns to the elegiac folk-inspired strain of a single flute or oboe, or sets up a big romantic rhapsody or an imposing church-like chorale, the results are sublime. When Enescu ratchets up the tension, the music could be dropped straight into Hollywood.

Clearly, however, Oedipe won’t satisfy action movie fans. This is Greek tragedy: we know exactly what’s going to happen, so the interest is in the philosophical argument and the way in which the music and staging capture the emotions of each moment. Especially in its first half, the opera is a series of tableaux rather than of actions.

Sarah Connolly (Jocaste) and Johan Reuter (Oedipe) © ROH | Clive Barda
Sarah Connolly (Jocaste) and Johan Reuter (Oedipe)
© ROH | Clive Barda

But what tableaux they are. The staging is by Àlex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco with collaborators from their groundbreaking Catalan company La Fura dels Baus. Their ability to surprise comes from the first moment of the opera, a theatrical effect so stunning that I don’t dare spoil it. Just be ready.

Photographers talk about “negative space” – the use of blank expanses to set a small subject in context. Ollé and Carrasco must have missed that lecture: in each tableau, every part of your sightline – top to bottom, left to right – is filled with visual detail, done with extraordinary artistry. The most artistic is the mimicking of the earthy colours and flattened images of classical Greek pottery, but the staging moves through time: the most striking image of the opera is a Stuka dive bomber from the Spanish Civil War, an image that must be baked into every Catalan child as the epitome of terror – a perfect choice to represent the Sphinx which terrorises Thebes.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux (The Sphinx) and Johan Reuter (Oedipe) © ROH | Clive Barda
Marie-Nicole Lemieux (The Sphinx) and Johan Reuter (Oedipe)
© ROH | Clive Barda

 That scene gives the opera two of its best vocal performances, from Štefan Kocán, grave and urgent as the watchman who tries to dissuade Oedipus from his quest, and from Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who takes on the Sphinx’s ferociously difficult lines with aplomb, swooping up and down through the extremes of the range, and creates a real flesh-and-blood character out of the agent of fate.

The title role makes extraordinary demands on the baritone, who is the centre of attention almost continually for two and a half hours. Johan Reuter gave a compelling rendering, with plenty of steel in the voice. At his best in the big emotional highs, he couldn’t keep up the highest standard for the whole time – I’m not sure I can think of a singer who could, which might explain why Oedipe isn’t performed more often – so some details were lost in the quieter moments. But this was a performance that reached deep into the heart of the drama and dug out enormous amounts of characterisation.

There are no other lead roles. I could mention half a dozen others in an exceptionally strong supporting cast, but I’ll limit myself to one: the blind prophet Tiresias gets two interventions where his pronouncements alter the course of the whole drama. Sir John Tomlinson proved himself still capable of making a dramatic entrance and making us quail in our seats.

Sir John Tomlinson (Tirésias) © ROH | Clive Barda
Sir John Tomlinson (Tirésias)
© ROH | Clive Barda

My one cavil is that Peter van Praet’s lighting will have been too dark for anyone up in the amphitheatre, while blinding anyone in the stalls in the scene of Oedipus’ killing of his father, presented as a road rage incident. But my last word goes to conductor Leo Hussain, starting his Royal Opera career the hard way with a score of exceptional complexity, making it instantly accessible to first-time listeners and delivering colour and power throughout.

Oedipe is opera at its most potent – visually, musically, vocally, dramatically. Go see it!

*****