A Classic Updated: Enescu's All-Embracing 'Oedipe'
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. 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 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 he kills them all in self defense.
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, to music that 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 born 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. While that's going on, Oedipus begins to learn things about his past -- by talking first to an old shepherd, and than 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."