Nearly ninety years after its opening in Paris at Opera Garnier, Transylvanian expat pianist Lucian Ban and American violist Mat Maneri present a radical re-imagination of George Enescu’s famous Oedipe opera. For decades, the opera was seen as too difficult to perform, the score and four long acts demanded much from the musicians, but Enescu’s Oedipe has finally begun to receive the attention that it rightly deserves and to be recognized as one of the greatest works in the operatic repertoire.
Enescu was a musical marvel in the early 20th century. He was a famous violin virtuoso who taught Yehudi Menuhin, and a celebrity conductor. He played cello masterfully and his ability as a pianist aroused the good-natured envy of Arthur Rubinstein. Pablo Casals described Enescu as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart.“ He was also an incredible, but underappreciated, composer.
Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri are known for their amalgamations of Transylvanian folk and improvisation, their mining of 20th Century European classical music with jazz, and for their pursuit of a modern chamber jazz ideal.
The two musicians first worked together on Enesco Re-Imagined (Sunnyside, 2010) which reinterpreted the composer’s instrumental pieces for an eclectic chamber jazz ensemble featuring an A list of New York’s most celebrated jazz musicians. The 2013 ECM Records duo album Transylvanian Concert was widely acclaimed for its original voice and unorthodox beauty. In 2020, their recasting of the Transylvanian folk songs from the Bela Bartok Field Recordings, featuring legendary British reed master John Surman, was, as JazzTimes put it, “as much an act of tribute as it is a transformation” and brought immediate acclaim from fans and critics alike.
To reinvent Oedipe for the 21st century, Ban and Maneri streamlined Enescu’s score for a smaller, more flexible ensemble and knew they needed musical cohorts that would be able to immediately understand the project and bring their own personalities into the music. They recruited trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist John Hébert, drummer Tom Rainey, and French clarinetist Louis Sclavis, a legend in the world of contemporary music and improv in Europe. And for the vocal parts, perhaps the most important element of the opera, they invited Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann, both brilliant contemporary vocalists, that could handle Enescu’s difficult lines and bring new life to Oedipe Redux.
Oedipe combines Enescu’s romantic musical leanings with contemporary 20th century writing and ancient music influences, including microtonalities and folkloric themes. "Enesco's Oedipe is a monumental, complex and difficult piece of music, and it's one of the reasons for being rarely staged, but its profound synthesis of ancient and modern with late romanticism and sheer individualism on the part of its composer is unparalleled among the operas of the past centuries. It is why Mat Maneri and myself, after previously working with his instrumental music, wanted to approach Oedipe," pianist Lucian Ban says in discussing Oedipe Redux.
To compound the difficulty, to this day there is no authoritative print version of Enescu’s score; for Oedipe Redux, Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri worked from a facsimile of the original score at The Enescu Museum in Bucharest.
Maneri and Ban closely follow the narrative and dramaturgy of the libretto but do a radical rewriting of the Enescu score to bring their jazz credo of improvisation into the foreground – they composed interludes to tie the pieces together, and they feature intense soloing from the instrumentalists in various groupings. They kept the original score motives, themes and melodies, but combine Enescu’s music with the freedom of the downtown New York ethos. On top of all this, they had the soaring voices of Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann singing Enescu’s parts with visceral abandon. They were encouraged to improvise, and improvise they did. By the end of the 2019 tour, when the music was recorded live at Bimhuis in Amsterdam, they had added acting and movement to their performance.
The music provides an ominous and affecting feel to the narrative. From Maneri’s lonely viola setting the action as King Laïos’s gives his son to a shepherd to be killed on “Helas, Terre Lamentable!,” the music building to a gallows march and Shyu and Bleckmann adding dramatic flair. Ban’s stirring piano and Bleckmann’s gorgeous vocals are highlights on “Où Suis-Je? Le Corbeau Crie…,” which illustrates the meeting of Oedipe and the Shepherd. The arc of Oedipe’s story is dramatically rendered until he finds peace, sight, and release on “Je Mourrai Dans la Lumière.”
Mat Maneri describing the approach he and Lucian undertook says “Enescu leaves many signposts in his opera that are a gold mine for an improviser and it was a joy to have master improvisers explore these intervals on their respective instruments and hear the full range of emotion placed on a single set piece. With all the broad things in Oedipe, Enescu’s signposts allowed us to re-explore his and our humanity and we are forever grateful for that”.
The libretto by French Jewish writer Edmond Fleg is based on two plays by Sophocles, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, but transforms the Oedipus myth into an epic narrative that begins with the title character’s birth and – in a twist to the original – ends with his disappearance in a flash of light. Although Oedipe still gouges out his eyes in shame upon having learned that he committed patricide and entered into an incestuous relationship with his mother, Enescu and Fleg bring a major departure to the idea of destiny: Man is stronger than fate, as Oedipe tells the Sphinx in the second act.
Lucian Ban and Mat Maneri harness the spirit of George Enescu’s masterwork, Oedipe, and channel it into a modern recreation in their own vernacular. Oedipe Redux is a breathtaking retelling, breathing new life into one of the most storied tales of human drama