Ever since English National Opera announced this new production of Charpentier’s Medea, I had eagerly anticipated the chance to see such a rarely performed work in the theatre. ENO has assembled a mouth-watering cast headed by one of the world’s most compelling singing actresses, conducted by an internationally acknowledged baroque specialist and directed by one of the most consistently successful opera directors currently working. How could it possibly go wrong? My first doubts surfaced when studying various recordings in preparation for reviewing the production: the music, often achingly beautiful, seemed to insufficiently convey the horror and drama of this Tarantino-esque Greek bloodbath. Anyone who saw Diana Rigg in Euripides’ original play or Anna Caterina Antonacci in the Cherubini opera will know what an eviscerative experience this story can have. However Charpentier’s opera, premiered just over a hundred years before, is a very different beast. As so often with operas written in this period, the piece was larded with numerous diversions, a Monarch-flattering prologue (fortunately cut in this production) and many seemingly irrelevant characters. Apart from the disturbing scene where Medea conjures demons these diversions do nothing to propel the plot. However listening to a recording, especially of baroque repertoire, cannot truly render the full drama and impact of a work and with the stunning Joyce DiDonato evening of baroque “Drama Queens” fresh in my mind I still anticipated a thrilling evening.
The fact that the thrills were rapidly replaced by severely modified rapture can in no way be laid at the door of a stupendous cast and a production which, after a slow start, builds to a chilling climax. No, I’m afraid that the blame must rest squarely with Charpentier. Time and time again the music utterly undermines the vivid libretto (in a largely very successful translation by Christopher Cowell). Two particularly disastrous examples will suffice to illustrate my point. In the final part of Act 4 Creon is driven mad by Medea’s magic. A scene which should illustrate the horrific disintegration of a great mind is accompanied by utterly innocuous pastoral-type ballet music. Admittedly David McVicar and his choreographer, Lynne Page manage to make something appropriately sickly and sinister by having Creon surrounded by multiple versions of his own daughter apparently set on sexual conjunction with her father. But despite this the music never achieves the heights of stark, staring horror necessary. Even worse is the potentially stomach churning scene in which Creusa is burned alive by her own bridal dress. In a scene in which the character is supposedly racked with agony the music, listened to in isolation without a translation, might as well evoke a charming love duet. Words conjuring the blackest of horrors are constantly contradicted by music of vapid prettiness.
McVicar’s production only really finds its feet after the first interval as the storm clouds gather and the story reels towards the final tragedy. In the first scenes, despite excellent Personenregie the stage picture is too often swamped by distractions. The period is updated to the 1940s which is perfectly acceptable except that it doesn’t significantly sharpen the focus of the story. But I liked the idea of the various allied Greek city-states portrayed as the World War II allies particularly Roderick Williams’s Orontes as a fatuous, super confident US flyboy. Williams sings superbly throughout and the moment when the scales fall from his eyes is chillingly realised. He is developing into one of our finest singers and inhabits the stage with supreme confidence. A great performance.
However McVicar’s potentially interesting idea of setting the meeting of the three martial powers in a War Room complete with plotting tables is fatally undermined by the ridiculous, capering sailors and soldiers who seem to have strayed straight out of an Ivor Novello musical. I worry that McVicar seems to have become stuck in a choreographic rut – what seemed fresh and exciting in his Faust now seems distinctly old hat. Even the demon ballet in Act 3 seemed like a re-cooked version of Michael Keegan-Dolan’s zombie sylph ballet. And the supposedly groundbreaking practice of dancers breaking the “sound rule” and indulging in screaming and grunting should be put to bed once and for all.
The low point of the show came in Act 2 with Orontes making a big public play for Creusa’s hand. This scene is accompanied by a massive set of danced diversions and sung interludes. Here we entered the realm of super-camp with Cupid looking like a cross between Yoko Ono and one of the black winged angels from Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal, Sophie Junker’s Italian Woman as a nightclub chanteuse and Oronte’s chariot metamorphosed into a pink, sparkly Phantom fighter (obviously!). It was all a good deal more 1932 Berlin than 1940s France. More gravely, it undermined the deadly serious three-way conflict in the scene and the complete sincerity of Oronte’s wooing – never mind “Greeks bearing gifts”, would you really trust a man with a pink, glitter covered fighter plane?!
Fortunately, once past the interval, the production improved significantly. McVicar does horror much better than pretty. Act 3 concentrates on Medea and the start of the chain of horrific events leading to the final tragedy. And here Sarah Connolly came into her own. The disintegration from the elegantly coiffed princess of the first act to the dishevelled harpy summoning the powers of hell to avenge her showed the singer at her formidable best. In the big aria “Is this what love is worth?” Connolly vividly evokes a woman losing her grip on all that she values and turning to the path of utter destructive fury. To say that she transcends the limitations of the materiel is grossly understating the case. Her still, rock-like presence in the demon ballet is far more frightening than anything the various zombies and hate figures can summon. The two sung and danced roles of Vengeance and Jealousy are portrayed as male versions of Medea but also evoke gruesome images of flayed bodies and aborted children. This incredibly strong opening image is almost immediately undermined by the zombie armed service victims who never sufficiently frighten or revolt.
Jeffrey Francis may not look like the hunky military superman at whose feet all women fall but he is an excellent actor and fleshes out a character that can easily be eclipsed by the female lead. It is also a blessed relief after so many mewling reedy tenors beloved of period baroque revivals to hear a really juicy, virile voice in the part. He tired slightly in the final scene but the role is long and demanding. I look forward to seeing him in other roles.
Katherine Manley makes a great deal with the potentially ungrateful role of Creusa. Manley portrays a determined young woman who is used to getting her own way. She also demonstrated impressive dance skills in Creon’s mad scene. The voice is beautiful and full toned and she looks a treat onstage. The relationship with her overweening father is played as borderline incestuous and the creepy early scene where Creon molests his far from unwilling daughter is echoed in the later mad scene/ballet. Manley does what she can with the woefully undramatic murder-by-frock scene but is, finally, defeated by Charpentier.
Brindley Sherratt’s entirely corrupt Creon is a compelling portrayal of a slimy politician out for the main chance. This is a man happy to use his daughter as diplomatic currency as well as, presumably, for some other unmentionable acts. His mad scene, despite the pretty music, is a tour de force. Sherratt changes before our eyes from the all powerful monarch into a dribbling lunatic stripped to his underclothes shambling round the stage. His singing is darkly beautiful and his exemplary diction is an example to all singers.
I have nothing but praise for Christian Curnyn and his wonderful orchestra. Curnyn clearly adores the score and he conjures playing of incandescent beauty from his players. I only wish I shared his enthusiasm for the work.
This was a peculiarly frustrating evening – to see this array of talent being brought to bear on a work that they clearly regard with huge affection and yet to still find the work in the main unrewarding is the opposite of what I had hoped for all involved. Looking at the online reaction it is clear that many will disagree with my judgement but I fear that Cherubini’s Medea is a good deal more worthy of revival than Charpentier’s.
(but mainly for the singing performances)
Photographs © Clive Barda