Charpentier’s Medea at ENO

Despite the repeated bestowal of royal favour and attendance at the few
performances which followed the 1693 premiere before the AcadÈmie 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 CrÈon 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.

image_description=Sarah Connolly as Medea [Photo by Clive Barda]
product_title=Charpentier’ Medea at ENO
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Sarah Connolly as Medea [Photo by Clive Barda]