Rarely has the adventuresome listener's investment been so handsomely repaid. Georges Enescu, contemporaneous with Igor Stravinsky, wrote "Oedipe" ("Oedipus") gradually over many years, and it finally premiered in 1936. I've not heard the EMI set of this opera from some years back, luxuriously cast with the likes of Jose Van Dam and other big names, and there's no reason to doubt its merits. Now Naxos has come out with its own cheaper version, from a 1997 production at the Vienna State Opera, again in the original French. Conductor Michael Gielen comes into this venture with a fine reputation and collaborates with a cast of generally unfamiliar singers. But Gielen and all his musicians do themselves proud, and it's been a long time since I got hooked on an opera at first hearing. The American singer Monte Pederson is gripping in the title role, and since he died a few years after this performance, the recording is something of a de-facto memorial.
There are refreshingly original moments throughout this two-hour score, notably the chilling encounter with the Sphinx, and the supportive orchestration varies from pungency to darkness to gossamer delicacy. Some literary experts may cavil at the redemptive conclusion jerry-rigged by Enescu's librettist, and some opera fans may be miffed that Naxos doesn't provide a libretto. Also, this set is from live performance, so you'll hear applause and stage noises, but none of these defects bothered me. If, as textbooks assert, the "modern" or Wagnerian model for opera sought to create a fluent, unified musical experience without stand-alone pieces dropped in, I'd say that Enescu achieves precisely that objective here (as did Debussy in "Pellas"). It makes me wonder what other works of this neglected Romanian composer will come into a joyous re-appreciation.