Operatically speaking, the myth of the wronged woman and child murderess Medea has largely been filtered through Cherubini’s dramatic 1797 setting, especially since Maria Callas’s celebrated assumption of the role (not to mention her amazing, non-singing performance in Pasolini’s 1969 film of the same name). But a century earlier Marc-Antoine Charpentier had written a very different Medea, a bold break-out from the Lullian monopoly that had dominated French opera for decades that has languished undeservedly for 320 years before receiving a British staging. (It hasn’t fared much better in France, for that matter, though recordings by William Christie on CD and Hervé Niquet on DVD are both recommended.
This Medea is a very different animal from the Handelian baroque opera we’re used to on this side of la Manche. Instead of a repeating sequence of recitative/aria, with the action frequently grinding to a halt for a 10-minute da capo showpiece, Charpentier gives us what amounts to a continuous flow of heightened declamation with interpolated air, arioso, chorus and dance. What we arguably lose in terms of cathartic musical statements of the protagonists’ emotional states we gain in the variety of musical forms and orchestral textures Charpentier packs into his sometimes stunningly beautiful score. And, of course, this emphasis on dramatic values serves the libretto by Thomas Corneille (tragedian Pierre’s less famous younger brother) very well indeed: yes, it propels the story along with the minimum of musical fuss, but moments of emotional intensity are heightened by ear-tingling suspensions and dissonances, while public scenes are enlivened by percussive martial music, lively choruses or sprightly dance rhythms
For something that might look like a long night on paper, there are surprisingly few longeurs in the music (mercifully, though, we are spared the prologue sucking up to Sun King Louis XIV) or in David McVicar’s brilliant production, which succeeds in turning a 17th-century potential museum piece into a lively bit of 21st century theatre. It works in the way that all McVicar’s best work has done, by creating an elegantly stylised, historically knowing and yet realistically detailed world in which well-directed singers become three-dimensional characters. As with his Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare, McVicar updates the action from the distant world of the classics to something more resonant for a contemporary audience: here, it’s to a slightly fantasticated WWII setting (what appears to be a requisitioned palace, stunningly designed by Bunny Christie) in which the New World comes to the aid of the Old. (One wonders whether Creon’s Gallic-looking uniform suggests, a bit cheekily, that, as usual, it’s Charpentier’s compatriots who need a bit of help in a fight?).
Corneille’s libretto adds some extra layers unfamiliar to followers of Euripedes or Cherubini, introducing the character of Orontes as a second suitor to Creusa and rival to Jason and an important ally to her father Creon in fighting the Thessalanian invaders. Thus, we get a love triangle (or is that a quadrilateral?) and a political drama rolled neatly into one, a story in which the alliances and rivalries of the male movers and shakers are finally undone by the marginalised, ‘illegitimate’ power of a female outsider.
Charpentier succeeds in fully humanising his central character in a way that neither Euripides nor Cherubini do; we follow Medea’s emotional state from an earlier stage in the story, when she is merely suspicious that there may be more to Jason’s buttering up of King Creon than meets the eye and her jealousy of his daughter Creusa is only just flickering into life, rather than seeing her as a heartbroken, vengeful monster from the start. It proves a fantastic role for Sarah Connolly, who turns in a magisterial performance. Her Medea is a complex creation that manages to combine haughty self-belief, emotional vulnerability and terrifying rage, often switching from one to another in the wink of an eye. In Act III – the emotional fulcrum of the piece and arguably containing the best of Charpentier’s music – we see her unravel before our eyes, the carefully-coiffed tresses and sober yet elegant clothes giving way to lank hair, a mad stare and various states of undress as she prepares to summon demons from the pit to help destroy her enemies. Hot on the heels of a Ring-stealing Fricka (it’s not often one can write that) at Covent Garden, this was proof again that Connolly is one of the best singers, and actors, we currently boast.
This may be Connolly’s vehicle, but ENO have assembled the rest of the cast with care. It was good to see Roderick Williams back at the Coliseum. Orontes is a pretty colourless character on paper, but the excellent Williams (in fine voice) brings him to charming life, clearly relishing the chance to ham it up as a brash, back-slapping USAAF captain – overpaid, over-sexed and over here – with whom the more strait-laced Creon and Jason have to deal.
Brindley Sherratt’s Creon and Katherine Manley’s Creusas were both strongly sung and nicely characterised. The former is a plausibly flawed king whose transition from swaggering De Gaulle figure to a gibbering loon with his trousers round his ankles, lusting after multiple simulacra of his diaphanously draped daughter, veers into Salome territory, while Manley’s lovely Creusas was a convincing mixture of privileged arrogance and heartfelt youthful emotion. The weakest link was American tenor Jeffrey Francis’s Jason, believable enough as a blustering, self-regarding hero who knows he’s doing the dirty, but not always entirely understandable, his woolly articulation often making recourse to the surtitles necessary.
Louis XIV famously liked his ballet, and unless massive cuts to the score are contemplated (four of the five acts contain extended dance episodes), there’s a good deal of stage time to be filled by dancing. Fortunately, all of this wonderful music is preserved intact, and McVicar and choreographer Lynne Page stage some stunning routines which keep stage activity moving and illuminate McVicar’s reading of the opera at the same time. The first act, for instance, turns a diplomatic reception into a witty parade of dancing WAAFS and naval officers with 1940s moves straight out of On the Town. Also particularly effective are the ‘phantoms’ summoned by Medea in Act IV – seen here as revenant servant girls and nurses wreaking systematic and violent revenge on their male tormentors. It’s a dance of death that shows up the zombie nuns of ROH’s recent Robert le diable as the pathetically non-menacing specimens they were.
In the pit, Christian Curnyn delivered a lovingly shaped and buoyantly rhythmic reading that brought out all the theorbo-and-recorder-coloured richness and harmonic bite of Charpentier’s score – and the audience clearly loved it as much as they did the on-stage action. After his previous excursion into French baroque territory for ENO – the musically memorable but Barrie Kosky-sabotaged Castor and Pollux in 2011 – we can only hope that there are plans are to let him explore more of this rewarding and largely unheard repertoire in the context at the Coliseum, and with a director and cast of similar quality as on this occasion.
Meanwhile, Medea is an unmissable treat. Whether or not this exquisite rarity will put much-needed bums on Coliseum seats, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I see anything else as good this year.
By David Sutton
Photos: Clive Barda