Guest author Jonathan Gray sees the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Medea
|Company||The Metropolitan Opera|
|Venue||Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center|
|Date||8 October 2022|
Medea strikes as much terror into the hearts of sopranos as it does the characters in Luigi Cherubini's opera. It is a fearsome role that demands vocal strength and agility, as well as a commanding stage presence and formidable dramatic power, all contained within an opera that bridges the classical world of Mozart and the romantic age of Beethoven, Bellini and even Verdi.
Maria Callas made the opera famous during the 1950s and early 1960s, but, unsurprisingly, it has been rarely performed since then. I've seen the opera staged once before, way back in 1989, when Rosalind Plowright sang Medea in a limp, unconvincing production at The Royal Opera. Thirty-three years later, New York's Metropolitan Opera is performing Medea for the first time in its history, and in Sondra Radvanovsky it has found a soprano who can tackle the title-role with thrilling intensity. The Met presented the opera in the Italian version, rather than the original French, and – speaking personally – it was all the better for it.
Radvanovsky, dressed in a bedraggled, tattered black costume, quietly makes her first entrance at the side of the stage during Act I, and when she sings, she colours her voice with a penetratingly hard and sinister edge – she never imitates Callas, but sings the music in her own way, making great use of the phrasing in her vocal lines and the enunciation of the words. Radvanovsky immediately suggests, through voice and action, that though Medea's authority has been diminished following her abandonment by Giasone (Matthew Polenzani), who plans to marry Glauce, Princess of Corinth (Janai Brugger), she remains a mighty force. When Giasone throws Medea to the floor in anger at her appearance in Corinth before his wedding, she pleads with him in desperation, crawling on her knees, then slithering on the ground like a snake ready to strike. Her voice alternates between softness and barely contained anger – Radvanovsky's singing is controlled, in an almost Mozartian way, but there is also an edge of steel behind it.
Throughout the first two acts, director David McVicar shows Medea assaulted and attacked by men – not only by Giasone, but also his Argonauts, and the courtiers and soldiers of King Creonte's (Michele Pertusi) court. Fearful of her magic powers, Medea is ostracised and exiled from Corinth by Creonte – which in this production is demonstrated in the most physical of ways, by shutting the huge metal doors of the palace against her and locking her out. In doing this, McVicar allows Medea to become a sympathetic character – a sorceress who has been cruelly abused, above all by the man whom she helped achieve status and power, and to whom she bore two sons. Desperate to be reunited with her children, whom Giasone has brought to Corinth with him, it's no wonder Medea's rage finally boils over and she plans to exact her revenge. The only person to comfort her in her distress is her confidante, Neris (Ekaterina Gubanova).
As the opera progresses to its terrible conclusion, Radvanovsky's performance becomes ever more volcanic, and the extremes of emotion she conveys through Cherubini's psychologically fluctuating music is thrilling, so much so that her final act almost becomes a “mad scene” in a bel canto opera as Medea's emotions spiral out of control. Implacable in her desire to punish Giasone, Medea kills Glauce and Creonte through her magic by presenting them with poisoned robes and a diadem as wedding gifts, and then – in the most extreme and horrible act of revenge of all – decides to kill her children. Radvanovsky expresses Medea's rage, vulnerability and sorrow through some fantastic singing that never becomes shrill. A woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and now, convincingly disturbed, Medea takes up the knife to carry out the murders. The final moment of the opera shows Giasone in despair as he watches the temple, in which Medea has taken their children to die, become an inferno.
This is a tour de force performance from Radvanovsky, exciting, insightful, chilling, and terrifying, and there can be little doubt she will be invited to sing the role again in opera houses around the world. She was helped immensely by McVicar's intelligent direction of the production, which almost completely focusses on Medea's state of mind, but also emphasises the thoroughly unpleasant nature of Giasone's character – like Pollione in Bellini's Norma, he is completely unsympathetic. McVicar also designed the effective setting, which depicts the crumbling walls and rusting doors of Creonte's palace, and is backed by a huge, angled mirror that reflects the characters in action below. This allows for some stunning stage images, such as Glauce and Giasone's wedding, and also Glauce's death, frothing blood from her mouth, as she lies face down on a banqueting table. Doey Lüthi's opulent costumes suggest the decadent royal or Napoleonic courts at the time when Cherubini composed the opera in 1797.
Contributing to the success of the production was the fine singing of Polenzani and Brugger, both, surely, natural Mozart singers who rose to the challenge of performing this unusual opera, and especially Gubanova, whose ravishing, plaintive aria in the second act came as a welcome moment of quiet reflection. The opera was conducted by Carlo Rizzi, formerly music director of Welsh National Opera, who drove the orchestra in an excitingly fast account of the overture, and who allowed the singers the musical space in which to blossom in their arias. What he couldn't disguise, however, was that The Met is really too large an auditorium for Cherubini's score, which was composed for a much smaller theatre. The music sometimes sounded thin, but never when Radvanovsky was on stage. For those tempted to see this production of Medea, it remains in repertoire at The Metropolitan.
Medea continues until 28 October, will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide on 22 October, and will be the first opera to be streamed to televisions and devices live on the Met's new ‘Live at Home' platform.
This sounds absolutely fantastic – your description is truly riveting. The context you provide of the opera’s history leads to a sense of excitement and the performance and stage setting are terrific. Yet another night when I think ” I really wish I’d been there”. Thanks for your excellent review Jonathan
Thank you for this review – it obviously sounds great, the photos show that it looks wonderful, and then I read the last line: I’ll be able to watch it at home… Hooray!
Having listened to the broadcast (twice) and having also watched the last act, I’m afraid I don’t share the reviewer’s enthusiasm.
Just a curiosity – how did you watch the last act? Were you in the theatre?
Somebody had filmed the last act and put it online. It seems to be gone now. Curtain rises over the music of the act prelude sounding like ponderous movie score, not like Cherubini. Radvanovsky clad in a black dress with train, disheveled and with eye makeup à la horror gothic movie, wanders aimlessly during the orchestral prelude carrying what looks to be a glitzy dress and an equally glitzy crown, then plumps down onto the floor. Neris enters and relieves her of her two stage props. Medea gets up and wanders toward a black chest upstage, opens it and gets out a mighty carving knife. From then on she practically spends her time on the floor rolling in stage filth and wielding that dagger. She looks like she was asked to drool as well but couldn’t oblige because she had to sing, but nevertheless did her best to make up by eye-rolling, grinning, and hair pulling during the period she is allowed to put down that knife. At one point she has to crawl down a few steps on her belly, singing all the time (I can’t fault her for not succeeding very well.) If the stage director’s intention was to make short work of the reflected grandeur of an ancient Greek myth and the inherent tragedy of the subject, and present us with a case of arrested development, he has succeeded. I guess that stripped down to bare facts, a libretto featuring a woman who murders her children because her husband has left her for another woman wouldn’t go well in the present US social climate, so they did what they always do when faced with uncomfortable situations, tried to rewrite it to something fashionable. Witness the birth of Medea the victim. This is at least how it looked to me. Of course one shouldn’t strip any operatic libretto to bare facts because this isn’t what opera is about, but I’m afraid that would be asking too much from modern audiences who are very literally minded these days. I dare say it’s going to be a success with them, complete with back mirror and projected flames.
A review! How wonderful. Thank you.