Strong advice. Avoid marrying a sorceress. Stronger advice. If you do, don’t dump her, unless the prenup prevents her using her magic powers. Even stronger advice. When she is Medea and sends your new inamorata her old wedding dress it is naïve to assume this is an act of approbation.
Jason, you clot. Remember the ointment Medea gave you to survive the two fire-breathing Khalkotauroi bulls you were given when you went a-ploughing as one of the challenges to gain the fabled Golden Fleece? This sorceress is hot on the chemical warfare front. Her number is on Putin’s speed-dial.
Luigi Cherubini’s Medea dates back to 1797, when it premiered at Paris’ Feydeau theatre as Medee with a French libretto. It is classified as an opéra comique, because of the distinctive use of spoken, unaccompanied dialogue.
There is certainly nothing “comique” about the plot. The final scenes feature the murdered bride, Glauce, her slain father, Creonte, and the slaughter of Medea and Jason’s two children, at her hand, in an overwhelming act of revenge.
It seems an oddly bleak choice with which to front the Met Gala that kicks off the 2022/23 season. I spot a defiant return to business-as-usual following last season’s post-Covid politically correct opener, Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard, aimed at softening up New York audiences still jumping at their Covid shadows and needing to be enticed back to the Lincoln Center.
That said, New Yorkers are still Covid-timorous beasties. I’d all but forgotten what a mask is. Compulsory still in the Lincoln Center – “except in the eating areas”. It is a fact known only in New York that Covid has agreed not to spread while folk are munching and quaffing champagne during opera intervals.
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This was the Met on full New York glitter mode. White Tie for the Opera Club – and many others – Black Ties popping up everywhere and occasional exotic outfits that would not have been out of place on the Met Museum’s Gala night carpeted steps. Showtime!
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, uses the opening event to round up donors needed to keep his opera company’s eye-popping $320m budget on track. Star donors require an early start – 6:00pm – and a star cast. Medea did not disappoint.
Here’s the prequel. To regain his birth right, the kingdom of Iolcus, stolen from him by his half-brother, Pelias, the hero Giasone (Jason) sailed in his ship, the Argo, to the distant land of Colchis in search of the fabled Golden Fleece.
There, he met and fell in love with Medea, daughter of King Aeetes and a sorceress, who betrayed her family and helped him steal the fleece. To stall the pursuit of Aeetes and his army, she then killed her own brother, scattering the pieces of his dismembered body. Already, she is, literally, a piece of work.
They sailed for Iolcus in Giasone’s ship. Upon Giasone’s arrival, Pelias refused to relinquish the throne, and Medea used her magic arts to kill him. Pursued by Pelias’s son Acastus, they fled in the Argo for Corinth, where Giasone married Medea and she bore him two sons.
Years later, bored with sorcery, Giasone has abandoned Medea and fallen in love with Glauce, daughter of King Creonte. In return for the fleece, Creonte has arranged the marriage of Giasone and Glauce.
The whole shebang is Netflix gold. A synopsis of the following action which unfolds in the opera can be found here, for those unfamiliar with the plot.
In 1953 Maria Callas, made the role her own at La Scala Milan. Listening to a contemporary recording now, it is understandable why. It may be sacrilege to say so, but I find her all-out, relentless ffff approach unengaging. Medea is a creature of many moods, not one long harangue.
Step up Sondra Radvanovsky, Medea, an American soprano, Lindemann scholar and blazing international star. She debuted at the Met in 1996 as Countess Ceprano in Rigoletto and hasn’t looked back since. Hers was a triumphant portrayal of the conflicted sorceress.
When it comes to rationalising in the final scene over whether to murder her two children or not, the trick is to keep the audience guessing. Her mood swings forced the house to the edge of its seats.
Matthew Polenzani, the American lyric tenor, is, at the age of 54, at the height of his powers and just gets better and better. Set piece arias brought ovation after ovation. Giasone is a difficult role.
The hero-leader of the Argonauts is actually a bit of a plonker. Why did he get involved with Medea in the first place? What was he thinking of, moving in with Glauce before the Medea mess had been cleared up?
And why did he agree to give the vulnerable kids to their mother for a final day when it was obvious, she was up to no good, already stalking his wedding ceremony at the garden gate?
Then there is the vaunted Golden Fleece. It was presented as a staked-out, hairy fire rug on a wooden cruciform. I checked. There’s a Waysoft genuine New Zealand sheepskin on ebay for $78.99. Stand down the Argonauts, save a load of hassle and have it delivered by DHL tomorrow.
Polenzani portrayed Giasone’s predicament perfectly. At times his attempts to pacify Medea even seemed to be making progress.
Glauce, the hapless bride who will never wear a hand-me-down again, was American soprano, Janai Brugger. She debuted at the Met in 2012. Ektarina Gubanova, a Russian mezzo-soprano sang the important role of Neris, Medea’s servant. Or, in this production, confidante, arguing and rationalising with her mistress. Michele Pertusi, an Italian bass was Creonte and brought great depth to the prospective father-in-law role.
Time to hail Producer and Set Designer, fellow Glaswegian, David McVicar. His production was a triumph. The set was mounted on a triangular base, apex pointing to the audience. The effect was to direct all the action as a focused arrow. Back stage, an angled mirror from floor to ceiling reflected the action front stage and allowed dazzling special effects, such as the lapping of the sea on a Colchian shore.
Glauce’s death scene and the two swaddled corpses of the murdered children were made doubly effective by their reflection, like watching tragedy unfold by means of a drone camera.
I cannot recall scenery at the Met sparking three spontaneous ovations. McVicar’s did. Some favourites evoke one, such as the crowd scene in Zeffirelli’s La Bohème, or the opening of his Turandot, but that’s more from relief that no-one has played silly buggers with the old familiars.
McVicar is responsible for eight productions in the Met’s current repertoire. He took a curtain call to a deserved standing ovation, and it all seemed far away from his Scottish Opera heydays in the 1990s.
The final scene in which Medea is consumed by fire with the corpses of her children was brilliantly conceived by lighting director, Paule Constable. The circle of flame surrounding the sorceress and the children was back projected on the huge mirror. The audience was drawn into the fiery abyss from above.
Note to producers. Please recruit Constable for Don Giovanni’s next descent into hell. There is no longer any need for clunky trapdoors illuminated by red light bulbs and occasional puffs of dry ice.
Why the Cherubini masterpiece is so rarely performed is a bit of a mystery. Properly mounted it is a totally absorbing work. The Met’s habit of participating in co-productions should sort that. Greek National Opera, the Canadian Opera Company and Lyric Opera of Chicago all share this Medea, so it’s place in the current repertoire should be secure.
And another thing!
What’s with the Met’s disappearing Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin? He is fast becoming Manhattan’s Cheshire Cat of conductors.
Of the Met’s 23 operas this season he is wielding the baton for only five. Hardly at the centre of events. He also conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra and in March took time out because of a punishing international schedule.
Will this season see a handing on of the baton? He certainly no longer seems to be absorbed by his Lincoln Center role.
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