Heiner Müller's MedeaMaterial re-imagines the Medea myth as an allegory of colonisation, both sexual and imperial. Using fragments from the Euripides and Seneca Medea plays in a mixed array of automatic, free associative, and infra-narrative text, Müller conjures a strange, at times unknowable dramatic world.
Pascal Dusapin and the choreographer Sasha Waltz adapted the play in 1992 for dancers, coloratura soprano, vocal quartet, mixed chorus, and small string orchestra with harpsichord and organ. The resulting opera — really it's an oratorio for solo voice with important dance elements — is as strange and interesting as the text on which it is based. The work is a remarkable meditation on demonism, both from the inside and from a position of restorative judgement. This evening's performance with the 17 performers of Waltz's dance company Sasha Waltz and Guests, the La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, and the Vocalconsort Berlin lived up to the text; it was perplexing, vivid, and enigmatic, if sometimes a little hard to emotionally engage with.
The presentation opened with one of Waltz's many coups de théâtre, this first being the most extended. 15 dancers lay across the back of the darkened stage, interlocked and in a line horizontal to the audience. Slowly, with high hum from the air conditioning the only sound, the line advanced the stage, each body curling around its partner with slow tension. The ends moved to form a curve, the whole group eventually, four or five minutes in, making a circle. Dancers then disengaged, eventually all standing, with twos pairing off in various stylised poses and actions that intimated classical depictions of conflict and war. After ten stunning minutes, with seats beginning to creak around me in the opera house, the dancers exited the stage. The lights came up softly to reveal an elevated panel of stel which showed five separate frozen poses of battle in a line. The stelae slowly, imperceptibly almost, began to move. What had seemed a painted element of the set gradually and uncannily showed itself to be a video. Looking frozen in amber, clay-marked dancers put everyone's dreams of antiquity into motion.
Following this extended opening, we find ourselves in the stark dramatic world of the opera. Caroline Stein as Medea is fierce and authoritative, yet tormented by the betrayal of Jason, whose presence at Creon's palace she immediately rails against. Medea's music, like the statuesque, stylised, even sculpted web of dancers around her, initially feels bleak; thin and harsh coloratura lines (given with great fervency — and precision — by Stein) place her at the limits of a terrifying emotional spectrum. The actions of the dancers, like those of the chorus, both echo the sensations of the protagonist, and offer commentary of their own. Stein guides us through this first part with a shocking sense of character. Her Medea weaves in and out of the increasingly dynamic array of dance, sometimes playing directly off one of the dancers, before building towards an exaggerated pitch of emotion. She rages, yet we rage with her. She will not be forgotten - here we have also the woman betrayed, not merely the woman betraying. The music is concise and pointed; pulsing tones from organ and strings peel into wilder passages for chorus and solo voice. Marcus Creed directs a formidable and poised ensemble. Like the dramatic design, which is precise, the music is spare and deliberate, with a certain directness and simplicity somewhat unusual for Dusapin. Neither element anyhow, the music nor the staging, lets us settle into continuous account, each pulling back or making obfuscation when shards of a solid narrative appear.
As the opera progresses, structuring events — like mythic nodes — form a dynamic. Glauce is disrobed, then dressed in the poison-laden dress Medea has sent her. Two dancers carry Glauce upstage, bursting her necklace to reveal spatters of blood, which eventually engulf her. Though foregrounded, the power of this internalised scene is its placement amongst some degree of contrast - Medea wanders the stage, other performers make localised moments of visual poetry. The chorus move onto stage, too, increasing the spectacle whilst also spatialising the sound engagingly. The appearance of the children strikes up an ominous note. The shift from organ to harpsichord, and from isolated pitch patterns to a more continuous musical fabric which is oftentimes suggestive of a slightly warped baroque orchestral suite, leads to a brilliant sequence where the six large fans, three on either side of the bare stage, blow with overwhelming and engulfing force. The dancers are stunned, action halting to the whim of the Gods and of destiny. Medea murders her children.
By this point, Stein has modulated her performance - more intense than earlier, but with a certain degree of tonal variety in the voice that is suggestive of her affecting terror. Medea at the end negates the aspect of woman ascribed to her by patriarchy: 'I, no woman, no man'. The performance ends, further along in event and form, but pleasingly inscrutable in definition. Medea is a work that refuses to submit to the rational order which demands a certain colonisation of meaning and character.
Photos by Sebastian Bolesch