The German artist and theatre director Achim Freyer has developed his own distinctive style of operatic presentation, one in which stage pictures and movement serve to counterpoint the music. The result is as close to Wagner's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, as perhaps anyone achieves on the stage today. In some respects, Freyer's visual style is an acquired taste, with its grotesque, exaggerated costumes and line-drawn scenic decoration. But at its best, it can be effective, affecting and effusively overwhelming. Such is the case with the new production of Enescu's Oedipe that he has created for this year's Salzburg Festival. The work's epic nature and compelling narrative seem made for him.

Christopher Maltman (Oedipe) © Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus
Christopher Maltman (Oedipe)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

Oedipe is the ultimate birth-to-death piece, tracing the entire life story of the tragic victim of predestiny. Freyer senses a cyclic element to the drama: the first image we see is the baby Oedipus struggling to get to grips with life; the last is the dead hero, naked again and curled into the foetal position. In between, Oedipus adopts a central position on stage as his life events come to him in their own fateful way. He is also the only character to show his real, unadorned face. The blind Tiresias is encased in a giant polkadot costume; Jocasta is a face-painted vision in blue; Creon only ever appears behind a mask. Oedipus, dressed as a boxer in a muscled body suit, embodies the strength of Man, the one thing greater than Destiny, as he answers to the Sphinx's riddle. Freyer uses the full spatial resources of the Felsenreitschule to reinforce his epic vision, with the iconic rock-carved loggia providing windows from which characters can proclaim. Dark figures of the chorus fill the shallow, wide stage with their slow-motion writhing, as suspended shapes and figures move up and down in the vertical plane. The result is detailed, absorbing and compelling.

Boris Pinkhasovich (Thésée), Christopher Maltman (Oedipe) © Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus
Boris Pinkhasovich (Thésée), Christopher Maltman (Oedipe)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

Fortunately, the same can be said of the musical side of the operation. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher is unsurpassed in the works of 20th-century modernism and here directed the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Enescu's audacious masterpiece that emphasised the music's forward-looking aspects as much as its allegiances to late Romanticism and neo-Classicism. True, a little of the playing sounded untidy towards the start, but the range of sounds and richness of tonal detail from the orchestra was ear-tingling, from evocative solo flute and bowed saw (the latter marking the Sphinx's dying cry) to the crashing climax at Oedipus's self-blinding.

Christopher Maltman (Oedipe) © Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus
Christopher Maltman (Oedipe)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

It would be hard to imagine a more viscerally engaging Oedipus than Christopher Maltman's tireless assumption of the title role: with the character on stage for much of the evening's three hours, it's a big sing, but he never lost focus or compromised on purely musical projection. His supporting cast was not quite so overwhelming. John Tomlinson sounded a little pushed by Tiresias' higher-lying lines, Anaïk Morel's Jocasta was vocally under-played and I have heard more alluring Sphinxes than Ève-Maud Hubeaux's rather plain-sounding characterisation.

Ève-Maud Hubeaux (The Sphinx) © Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus
Ève-Maud Hubeaux (The Sphinx)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

But Chiara Skerath was a sympathetic Antigone, Brian Mulligan a strong Creon and Vincent Ordonneau an appropriately flutey Shepherd. Michael Colvin's Laius, David Steffens' High Priest and Gordon Bintner's Phorbas also made their mark, as did actor Katha Platz as the tubby, masked Baby Oedipus, the embodiment of innocence compromised by fate.

****1