Medea – admiring but not loving

21 Feb

There was so much that was really special about ENO’s production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea, which I saw on February 20th, that it feels churlish to say that I wasn’t bowled over by it.

There was a predictably towering performance from Sarah Connolly in the title role.  She is one of the singers that I will go and hear whatever she does and I don’t think I have heard her in better form.  She conveyed the love, the sorrow, the anger and the vengeance of the role marvellously.  She was at her finest in the scenes with Jason, in the incantation scene in Act III and throughout Act IV when the scenes with Oronte and Creon conveyed a huge range of emotion.  Her voice seems to have acquired a slight rawness about some notes, reminiscent of Janet Baker and is adds to the power and emotion that she conveys.  If I have a criticism it was that I felt that her acting could have conveyed more of the anger that she managed vocally: I wanted a bit more chewing of the scenery.

The supporting cast around her were outstanding.  There are at least five other roles in the opera requiring great singers.  We had Jeffrey Francis as Jason who sang with style and drew sparks from Miss Connolly during their duets.  The only doubt was that he looked a bit elderly to be a credible rival for Roderick Williams’s supberb Orontes.  Williams, as anyone who remembers him from Castor and Pollux will know, sings this music perfectly.  His diction is impeccable, he sounds wonderful and he acts convincingly.  Brindley Sherratt was a splendidly vigorous, clear Creon and Katherine Manley displayed a lovely, pure voice as Creusa, Medea’s rival, and was particularly fine in the lovely final duet for her and Jason and in her death scene.

Christian Curmyn conducted vigorously, stylishly and, I thought, got really convincing playing from the orchestra and fine singing from the chorus.  This was conducting that had absolute faith and belief in the piece. This was a grand performance that managed to project the piece into a theatre the size of the Coliseum and had the calibre of singers to make it work.

And David McVicar gave us a very classy production The period is Second World War, which provides an opportunity for stylish military costumes and some elegant clothes for the women and provides a good, consistent period feel.  The set looks 18th century (I thought it would not be completely impossible for Act II of Rosenkaverlier).  There was an elegance and formality that is not at odds with this particular stylised form.  He managed to find a way of working in the dances.  His characters acted and understood what they were doing and saying.  It looked good.

So why did I feel only intermittently involved?  I think there are a number of reasons, mostly personal to me:

1.    I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the French baroque style.  I’m deeply ambivalent about Rameau and I find the conventions of the ballet and the rather austere formality repellent.  It may be that I simply don’t know the music well enough and haven’t adjusted to the conventions but here I found the opening scenes uninvolving and the dances in the first two acts interminable and unhelpful, however well staged.

2.    I think the Coliseum is too big for this.  No matter how grand the performance, it loses something by having to reach out into this barn.  Apart from some set pieces, this is an opera of intimate conversations and subtle vocal effects – you lose some of this.

3.    For all its elegance and precision, I wonder if McVicar’s production helped.  There is an element of the magic and fantastical here – Medea is meant to end up flying off on a chariot drawn by dragons, the palace is meant to collapse and there is scope for all kinds of effects as the demons help Medea poison Creusa’s dress.  I think that by placing it in the very un-magicial 1940s, McVicar robbed us of these – Miss Connolly being lifted up was a good attempt at ending the piece, but dragon-drawn chariots it was not.  And isn’t there something of the outsider about Medea even from the start.  I know that Charpentier deliberately accentuates the love and sadness of the early scenes but it was hard to see how this elegant, respectable woman could be a threat to Corinth, let alone turn into the poisoning murderess of the last few acts.

I sensed a slightly tepid, puzzled response from the audience and, while applauding the enterprise of ENO for the first ever British staging of this work (and first ever Charpentier by one of the main companies), being delighted to have the opportunity to see the opera and admiring the whole way in which the show was put together, I doubt that it will return or usher in a particular Charpentier revival.  Not for a while, anyway.

I admired the effort, but can take or leave the piece.


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