Oedipus Updated: Enescu's All-Embracing 'Oedipe' Inspired by Sophocles' Theban Plays, George Enescu was one of the few to narrate the entire life of Oedipus in his Oedipe, an opera that is often hailed as the finest single work ever composed by a Romanian.

Oedipus Updated: Enescu's All-Embracing 'Oedipe'

Hear An Audio Introduction To The Opera

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Oedipus (baritone Franck Ferrari) gouges out his eyes after learning that he has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Grigore Popescu hide caption

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Grigore Popescu

Oedipus (baritone Franck Ferrari) gouges out his eyes after learning that he has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.

Grigore Popescu


Death of the Sphinx

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In a spooky sequence near the end of Act Two, the Sphinx presents Oedipus with her riddle: Who or what is greater than Destiny? When Oedipus answers "Man," she mocks him. But she quickly dies, while both laughing and sobbing, saying the future will tell whether she's laughing in victory, or weeping in defeat. In Bucharest, Ekaterina Tutu played the Sphinx, with Franck Ferrari as Oedipus.


Roumanian Rhapsody No. 2, for orchestra in D major, Op. 11/2

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Along with his opera Oedipe, George Enescu wrote three highly accomplished symphonies, and a number of well-regarded chamber works. But his most popular compositions are his two Romanian Rhapsodies for orchestra. This recording of the second one, with its deft evocation of folk-like innocence and gentle longing, features the Bucharest Philharmonic with conductor Cristian Mandeal.

The legendary cellist Pablo Casals once called George Enescu "the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart" -- and with considerable justification. Enescu, like Mozart, displayed extraordinary abilities at an early age and continued to demonstrate his genius throughout a remarkable career.

Enescu was born in 1881, and started playing the violin when he was four. At age five, when he was taught to write music down on paper, he immediately began composing. He entered a conservatory in Vienna when he was seven, and graduated at age 12. At one point, he is said to have memorized Richard Wagner's entire "Ring" cycle.

In his mid-teens, Enescu studied composition in Paris with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Faure, alongside classmates including Maurice Ravel. Before he reached twenty, he was conducting his own works back in Bucharest where he was already hailed as a major force in Romanian music.

At that point, and through much of his career, Enescu's own music wasn't his main calling card. It was his violin. By the time World War I began, Enescu had traveled much of Europe as a renowned violin virtuoso, and beginning in the 1920s his itinerary expanded to include the United States. In 1925, one of his appearances inspired the young violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who sought Enescu out and studied with him for many years.

Leading A Double Life

Throughout his career, and even at the height of his fame as a performer, Enescu led two very different musical lives. During the concert season, he was based in Paris and crisscrossed the world giving concerts and recitals. In the off-season, he retreated to the Romanian countryside to compose, eventually completing an impressive catalog of works ranging from large scale symphonies and orchestral suites, to chamber works and music for his own use as a violinist. Yet despite the variety of his output, there was one work that was Enescu's musical companion for more than two decades: his single opera, Oedipe.

Enescu began the opera in 1910 after seeing a production of Oedipus the King, the classic drama by Sophocles. The opera's libretto, written in French by Edmond Fleg, incorporates elements of all three dramas known as Sophocles' "Theban Plays," and also uses other legends surrounding its title character, giving Enescu's Oedipe one of the few narratives that covers the entire life of Oedipus.

The opera wasn't completed, even in draft, for more than ten years, and even then Enescu wasn't satisfied with it. He worked on the score for another decade or so, finally completing it in the early 1930s. Its premiere took place in Paris, in 1936.

Enescu continued to be acclaimed as a virtuoso performer, but his reputation as a composer grew as his career progressed. He died in 1955 and by now, he's widely regarded as his country's greatest musician, with Oedipe often hailed as the finest single work ever composed by a Romanian.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of Oedipe from the Bucharest National Opera, as part of the 2009 George Enescu International Festival. The stars are baritone Franck Ferrari as Oedipus, with mezzo-soprano Oana Andra as Jocasta and soprano Crina Zancu as Antigone, in a performance led by conductor Oleg Caetani.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Oedipe'

The Bucharest National Opera's production of 'Oedipe' highlighted the 2009 George Enescu Festival, in Romania. Grigore Popescu hide caption

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Grigore Popescu

The Bucharest National Opera's production of 'Oedipe' highlighted the 2009 George Enescu Festival, in Romania.

Grigore Popescu


Franck Ferrari .................. Oedipus
Oana Andra ..................... Jocasta
Horia Sandu ..................... Tiresias
Mihai Lazar ....................... Laius
Ecaterina Tutu .................. The Sphinx
Pompeiu Harasteanu ........ Phorbas
Adriana Alexandru ........... Merope
Crina Zancu ..................... Antigone
Vicentiu Taranu ................ Theseus
Ionut Pascu ...................... Creon

Bucharest National Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Oleg Caetani, conductor

The opera opens with a brooding, orchestral prelude, and ACT ONE begins in the palace of Laius, the king of Thebes. There's a celebration underway, to commemorate the birth of a son to Laius and his wife Jocasta. This part of the opera relies openly on the sound of Romanian folk music and includes a dance sequence led by a group of shepherds.

Just as the baby is about to be christened, the proceedings are interrupted by Tiresias, an old, blind prophet. He predicts a sordid future for the child, saying that when he's grown he'll murder his father and marry his mother. Naturally, that stops the celebration in its tracks. Jocasta and Laius decide to take immediate action: They order one of the shepherds to take their baby into the desert and leave him to die.

ACT TWO begins in the palace of Polybus, the king of Corinth. Twenty years have passed. It turns out the shepherd ignored Laius's orders, and saved the baby. He took the infant to Phorbas, a servant of Polybus. Phorbas then secretly substituted Laius's baby for a son born to Polybus and his wife, Merope. Their infant son had just died, shortly after birth, without them knowing it. So, unaware, they raised this new baby as their own, naming him Oedipus.

Now, at age twenty, Oedipus visits an oracle and gets the same prediction Tiresias made two decades before: Oedipus is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus is shocked. He believes Polybus and Merope are his parents, and loves them deeply.

Later, Merope senses that something is bothering Oedipus. There's been a rumor that he's actually a foundling, and she assures him that it's not true. But Oedipus tells her about the prophecy and decides to leave Corinth forever -- to make sure the prediction can't come true.

The next scene takes place at a lonely intersection in the countryside. Oedipus arrives there just as a storm is beginning. Angry with the gods, Oedipus raises his sword as though to challenge fate itself. Just then, Laius arrives in a chariot, with a couple of soldiers. Finding Oedipus in a threatening position, and not knowing who he is, they attack him. Oedipus has no idea who is threatening him, and in self defense kills them all.

The act's final scene is back in Thebes, at the city's gates. The Sphinx has been tormenting the city by challenging people to solve her famous riddle, though here it's different than the one in the original story. The Sphinx demands to know who or what is greater than fate. Nobody can tell her, and she kills everyone who fails the test. But Oedipus comes along with the correct answer: Man.

The Sphinx dies, and the accompanying music evokes a combination of laughter and sobbing. Then, with King Laius dead, the people of Thebes name Oedipus their new king. They also reward him with the hand of Laius's widow, Jocasta.

At the start of ACT THREE, another twenty years have passed and Oedipus seems to have defeated fate. He's been a strong king, Thebes is a thriving city and Jocasta has borne him several children. But his happiness doesn't last long.

A plague strikes Thebes. Creon, the son of Oedipus and Jocasta, learns from an oracle that it won't end until the killer of Laius is identified and punished. Meanwhile, Oedipus begins to learn things about his past -- by talking first to an old shepherd, and then to Phorbas, his adoptive father. When he finally discovers the whole truth, he tells Jocasta -- who realizes she is both his wife and his mother. Horrified, she commits suicide. Oedipus then blinds himself, and leaves Thebes for a life of perpetual wandering. His only company is one of his daughters, Antigone.

The final act takes place years later in a grove near Athens, where the Furies serve as the city's guardians. Creon has followed Oedipus to the grove, and wants him to go back to Thebes. There's trouble there, and the people think Oedipus can help. When Oedipus refuses, Creon tries to force him to return by kidnapping Antigone. But Theseus, the king of Athens, intervenes to prevent the abduction.

Finally, in desperation, Creon accuses Oedipus of incest with his mother and of murdering his father. Oedipus declares his innocence -- saying that when his crimes took place he had no way of knowing what he was actually doing. In that sense, he says, he really has overcome Fate.

Oedipus then hears the Furies calling to him, and takes that as a sign that his life has come to an end. With his sight mysteriously restored, he leads Theseus into the grove, to die in a place that only Theseus will know. As the opera ends, Oedipus disappears in a flash of light and the Furies are heard singing, "Happy is he whose heart is pure."