Luigi Cherubini - Medea
Wexford Festival Opera, 2017
Stephen Barlow, Fiona Shaw, Lise Davidsen, Ruth Iniesta, Raffaella Lupinacci, Sergey Romanovsky, Adam Lau
National Opera House, Wexford - 31 October 2017
There's one essential element that you need for a performance of Cherubini's Medea and it's a fairly obvious one. No, it's not Maria Callas, but you're on the right track; it needs a character with the fire and personality that Maria Callas was capable of bringing to one of the most challenging roles in opera - or theatre, for that matter. There aren't too many Maria Callases around obviously, which might be one of the reasons why Cherubini's opera isn't performed more often these days, but there's no question that the Wexford Festival have found a great Medea in Lise Davidsen.
Finding a singer capable of harnessing the forces and challenges of this particular role is not however the only element that is essential to putting on a successful Medea, and there are other reasons why the opera is not performed very often. There are questions over which version to go with (French or Italian? The opéra-comique version with passages of spoken dialogue or the musical interpolations for the recitative provided by Franz Lachner for a German version of the work?). There's also the nature of the Classical opera and its fashionability, and Cherubini has never really been fashionable, not even in his own time.
All of those issues are well-addressed by Stephen Barlow, who conducts a magnificent account of the Italian version with Lachner recitatives at Wexford, and it truly reveals the merits of the work. There's no overblown Romanticism, but rather the restrained and measured elegance of the Classical tradition is adhered to; a sense of order in the music however that feels constantly threatened by the actions of its principal character. The music carries within it a hint of that menace, tying it to the dominant nature of the role that Medea exerts on the piece, her efforts to maintain control over her actions and her life always seeming to be in danger of giving in to her darker nature and spilling over into horrible violence.
Finding a way to meaningfully draw out that aspect of the work also seems to inform Fiona Shaw's approach to the direction. She takes into consideration that Cherubini composed the opera in 1797, with the horrors and dark violence of the French revolution would undoubtedly found its way into the composition. Certainly there are parallels to be drawn towards violence being inflicted on an unsuspecting royal family, but as an actress who has played this role on the stage, Shaw looks beyond that and tries to examine where exactly such murderous thoughts and intent might have derived from. She finds that in the references in Medea's murder of her own brother to help Jason steal the Golden Fleece and that idea is woven into the production. Violence begets violence, as the Greek classics often warn us, and it's hard to argue with how this element in presented here.
The overture hints at the sins of the mother being visited upon the children of the next generation. The Wexford production opens with the children of Medea playing as they make the sea crossing to Corinth, but the storms left behind on Colchis are still present with them in the figure of Medea's brother who has a silent physical presence here. It's this more than any classical references that are important, and the nature of this corruption of the soul should still have relevance today. It doesn't necessarily have to be spelled out in terms of contemporary political topicality, but there is certainly room for that if the audience want to apply it to the world around them.
Heavily paraphrased by me, that is nonetheless the import of Medea's words, and the contemporary setting just hits home the human sense of betrayal that Medea feels. But it's not just a matter of reducing classical mythology down to the level of a domestic dispute, and Shaw's production delves deeper into those archetypal themes with the symbolism of the sea, the waves, an island - all of it suggesting isolation, raging emotions, deep pain and urges towards violence that result in Medea's descent into madness.
The singing is fully up to the demands of the work and the intent of the production, showing just what Cherubini's opera has to offer. Lise Davidsen, in casual jeans and jumper, doesn't look at all like a demented enchantress, but that's the point. You don't know what will trigger Medea's reactions, but if those buttons are continually pushed, you will know all about it. You'll also know it from Davidsen's delivery, which is just phenomenal. It's not just that Davidsen meets the technical demands of the role, but she really does make it seem like Medea is on a hair-trigger, treading a line between outrage and entreaty, so that when she does finally explode and kill her children, it almost seems proportionate. And when it comes to it, the size of that voice does as much damage as Medea does to the gym equipment.
Ruth Iniesta also has a strong voice as Glauce, but it felt a bit overpowering, not quite as refined and controlled as Davidsen and almost too big for the O'Reilly Theatre. Raffaella Lupinacci made a terrific impression as Neris with some lovely lyrical singing. Sergey Romanovsky couldn't be faulted as Jason and his characterisation was also good, fitting in well with the production. While you can never have any real sympathy for Jason, his fault here is not so much betrayal and serial infidelity (as it can be in other opera versions of this story), but rather he is undone by his own weakness and misjudgement of Medea. There needs to be some kind of understanding of his position in order for the loss he suffers as a consequence to be utterly devastating, and in combination with Fiona Shaw's direction and Stephen Barlow's conducting - not to mention some impressive work from the orchestra and the chorus - the full force of Cherubini's Medea is felt by the time we get to that conclusion.
Links: Wexford Festival Opera