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Sarah Connolly as Medea [Photo by Clive Barda]
17 Feb 2013

Charpentier’s Medea at ENO

In 1704, 11 years after its first performance in 1693 before the royal court of Louis XIV, and 17 years after the death of Lully — and at a time when the relative merits of respective French and Italian aesthetics were constantly and fiercely being debated — Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée was condemned by the ‘Lullist’ faction, who were determined to defend their leader’s guardianship of the tragédie en musique, as an ‘abomination’: hard, dry and characterised by excess.

Charpentier’ Medea at ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sarah Connolly as Medea [Photo by Clive Barda]


Despite the repeated bestowal of royal favour and attendance at the few performances which followed the 1693 premiere before the Académie Royale de Musique, the opera was rapidly consigned to relative oblivion and has remained neglected, languishing in obscurity ever since. This ENO production is the first UK staging of a work which is undoubtedly one of Charpentier’s most ambitious and impressive secular scores.

David McVicar’s new production for ENO seeks to integrate the timelessness of Classical myth with a 1904s milieu — the latter providing a specificity with which modern audiences may engage — and thereby to underline both the universality and contemporary relevance of Charpentier’s and Corneille’s gruesome tale of ruthless revenge and pitiless bloodshed.

So, a seventeenth-century chateau — notable for its typically elegant pastel symmetry and gracious artifice — has been commanded for the 1940s war effort, and various personnel of the armed and naval forces stride through the polished halls, deliberating and manoeuvring, as love and hatred, loyalty and betrayal engage in a mythic battle to the death. Studio lights and other period details remind us of the 40s setting; yet courtly conventions and postmodernist motifs are effortlessly elided, the naturalistic interiors endowed with an eerily symbolic resonance by Paule Constable’s atmospheric, figurative lighting. Thus, the cold, clear light of day fade to the equivocal mists of night, and the crystalline world of combat merges with the murkier machinations of the diversionary distractions of aristocratic entertainment. The gorgeous reflective floor offers both realistic mirror images and impressionistic, suggestive reflections and intimations.

Eschewing the da capo aria model of Italian opera seria, Charpentier creates more fluid musical and vocal structures derived from the five-act form of the French classical tragedy of Corneille and Racine; and, McVicar effects a correspondently fluent dramatic movement within the confines of Bunny Christie’s beautifully evocative sets, as dramatic action merges with divertissement, and recitative blends into arioso then coalesces into more formalised aria.

Christie’s arresting costumes effectively reinforce the subjugation of the eponymous protagonist, the freedom of movement of the members of the female cast being alternately confined by restrictive, thigh-gripping pencil skirts and toe-pinching stilettos, then liberated by spangly hot-pants and fish-nets for the delectation of the powerful and voyeuristic military elite.

Although the Prologue, with its discrete contemporary political intent, is sensibly omitted, McVicar resists the temptation to exclude those elements of the score which others might deem un-dramatic and irrelevant: thus, the elements of spectacle — the ballet de cours with its extravagant costumes and scenic effects, the formal dances and elaborate divertissements — are intelligently and convincingly incorporated, smoothly dove-tailed with the scenes for the principals.

That said, the more abstract interpretations of the final three acts are more compelling than the heavily stylised end-of-act frivolities of the first two acts. The Act 2 divertissement to celebrate the arrival of the nubile Creusa — with its sequinned, star-studded plane, diva-esque posturing and nautical buffoonery — is a little too reminiscent of Flying Down to Rio or the stylised hamming of South Pacific. But, the demonic diversions of a snarling Vengeance, resentful Jealousy and aggrieved crowd of demons who poisonously bewitch the golden dress destined for Creusa, are fittingly disconcerting; similarly, the insubstantial phantoms which defeat Creon’s armed guard in Act 4 exemplify the choreographic approach of Lynne Page: namely, to present extremes of emotional excess expressed within controlled formal structures.

Inevitably the success of a production of this opera will rest disproportionately on its Medea. According to the classical myth, Medea has made a considerable personal sacrifice to enable her beloved Jason to win the Golden Fleece, and now disowned and exiled, she suspects that Jason’s affections have waned, as he is increasingly enamoured of Creusa, the daughter of King Créon of Corinth, who has given Jason and Medea refuge.

In an opera peopled by morally frail, dishonest men, Sarah Connolly portrays Medea as a powerful heroine driven by a combination of fiery anger, eloquent finesse and sharp intelligence. From the opening of Act 1 the profound depths of her character are evident: her passionate love, her jealousy, her pride, her tenderness. It is the powers at her command which set her apart, as is evident in the pulsing accompaniment of her first recitative and the tempestuous cascading string lines which frame it. Her softer side is revealed in Act 2, accompanied by strings and dulcet recorders, preparing us for the pathos of her brutal, inhuman murder of her children in order to inflict pain upon the man who has rejected her.

Connolly’s compassion as a mother was evident throughout Act 2, and her powerful soliloquies in Act 3, when she laments Jason’s betrayal and the futility of her love and loyalty, evoked tender empathy in the audience, before her invocation of Satanic darkness injected her thoughtfulness with a terrifying, nihilistic blackness, inspiring both terror and wonder. In her aria-moments Connolly combined warm, shapely lyricism with an elegant declamation of the text, ever alert to Charpentier’s unique arioso which is itself responsive to both word and affekt.

There are moments of great pathos in McVicar’s realisation of this horrifying myth: few could fail to be moved when Medea’s pitiable, pyjama-clad children clutch onto their mother as her raging fury feeds on its own embers and she acknowledges that they must die to fulfil her shocking craving for retribution. But, McVicar never lapses into melodrama. Although a terrible vengeance is wreaked through the final act, he and Connolly sustain an appalling Classical restraint: Medea looks on as her former lovers, friends and rivals futilely resist the agonies she has ordained, while she, clad in Hecatian black, rises aloft, indifferent to their human anguish.

The light, clear tenor of Jeffrey Francis, as Jason, conveyed the bright buoyancy and naive optimism of the ‘conquering hero’ who is full of pride and glowing with his own achievements. His set pieces were characterised by the sunny grace of the air de cours. However, Francis’s rather stilted tenor lacked flexibility and the capacity for subtle development of character; and he did not wholly convince as a man torn between the love for mother of his children and his new, unfamiliar feelings for Creusa — a man almost reluctantly lured into deceit against both Medea and Oronte.

Katherine Manley’s Creusa was a revelation; after the light-weight self-indulgence of Act 2, and the shocking intimations of an incestuous relationship with her father, King Creon, Manley increasingly projected her character’s pathetic and tragic essence, particularly in Act 4, where Charpentier’s harmonic piquancies reveal the condemnatory curse of the poisonous golden gown she has coveted. Her duet with Jason in Act 5 was an almost unbearably poignant lament of nobility as Manley affectingly conveyed the sweetness in ‘agony’ and the bitterness of death, revealing an ability to combine musical delicacy with powerful dramatic presence.

As Oronte, Roderick Williams was characteristically honest and engaging, conveying the evolving psychology of Oronte, who undoubtedly loves Creusa but who comes to understand that no act of revenge will gain him Creusa’s true devotion. Brindley Sherratt’s Creon was a disturbing composite of manipulative menace and vulnerable emotional infirmity. Nerina is a difficult role to carry off, as she alternatively incites and seeks to calm her mistress’s jealousy; but, Rhian Lois lingered and crept menacingly and meaningfully in the shadows and sang with expressive clarity.

Conductor Christian Curnyn was consistently alert to Charpentier’s sudden shifts of pace and colour and relished the startlingly violent contrasts of the score; even with just a small ensemble of modern strings, theorbos and harpsichords at his disposal, Curnyn produced diverse colours and textures, nowhere more so than during Medea’s malignant Act 3 sorcery, where the dark string tones enhanced the satanic menace. I’m not sure that the relatively small forces were able to make a full impact in the cavernous hall, but Curnyn coaxed a full string sound, underpinned by a deep, resonant basse violine timbre, supplemented by sweet recorder duets. The dissonant tartness of Charpentier’s rich harmonic language was used to effectively underpin the psychological development of the characters.

McVicar’s presents a subtle and touching reading of a first rank opera, characterised by some exceptionally crafted vocal performances — musical theatre at its best.

Claire Seymour

Cast and Production Information

Sarah Connolly, Medea; Jeffrey Francis, Jason; Brindley Sherratt, Creon; Katherine Manley, Creusa/Phantom I; Roderick Williams, Oronte; Rhian Lois, Nerna; Aoife O’Sullivan, Cloenis; Oliver Dunn, Arcas; John McMunn, Corinthian/Jealousy; Sophie Junker, Italian Woman/Phantom II; Jeremy Budd, Corinthian/Argive; Ewan Guthrie and Harry Collins, Medea’s sons; Christian Curnyn, conductor; David McVicar, director; Bunny Christie, designer; Paule Constable, lighting designer; Lynne Page, choreographer. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Friday 15th February 2012.

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