Seeing David McVicar slowly metamorphosing into the new Zeffirelli at the Met Opera in the last couple of years, I was a little bit weary about how idea rich his take on Charpentier’s Medea could be. French Baroque thrives on dance and spectacle and a director that comes up short can sink a production. I was hoping for some of the verve and invention from his Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto than the stale Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda of late. But one thing I was sure about was the excellent fit of Sarah Connolly for the title role, last November she gave a captivating rendition of Quel Prix in concert but nothing could have prepared me for the outstanding quality of this production.
I know a lot of people don’t like reports based on the dress rehearsal but as I am seeing it twice more later in the run I promise to update if any other observations creep in that make revision imperative.
The performance lasts near 3 hours and 20 minutes, as McVicar and Curnyn decided (wisely in my view) to cut the half hour prelude in praise of the Sun King. After the short and punchy overture we are thrown straight into the torments of (the newly arrived in Corinth) Medea. The setting is a wartime 1940s panelled interior, the set slightly angled at 70 degrees with a raked mirrored floor. Three tall grazed French doors (oh the English terminology comes handy in context) are leading into a peripheral corridor that is used for myriad entries and exits throughout the evening. A simple unfussy but sophisticated backdrop, its faded neoclassicism a subtle allusion to the original period of the work. Straight from the start the smooth changeover from waiting room to an officer’s mess room (complete with uniformed cocktail waiter) is handled with great care, with stage hands dressed in tuxedos befitting the stately setting of the work. With the restrictions that an Edwardian theatre like the Coliseum imposes on each director McVicar showed his class as a world renowned specialist in the field. The set even though static till the last few minutes of this production, constantly changes with subtle cues, the spotlights in the corners of the room move in to make a more intimate atmosphere or to spotlight the King while lying on the floor beaten by Medea’s magical powers in Act Four. The large glazed doors acquire opaque panes and the wall sconces acquire lit candles in the last Act. By extinguishing them before the final scene the smell of wax travels across the auditorium adding an olfactory element to this production.
The costumes are exquisite with great attention to detail. The 1940s atmosphere staying strong with the tailored nature of all the womenswear and the officers’ uniforms. The glamour of the robe (here changing into a rather eye-catching gold lamé evening dress) as Connolly reveals it in her travelling trunk in the first few minutes on stage, also closes the opera three hours later having been poisoned by her and worn by Creuse who dies a painful (if beautifully sung) death. This being baroque opera, amongst all the tragedy we get a lot of dancing. And I am delighted to report that McVicar’s mix of romp and camp works so well it truly adds interest and makes the dances feel more integrated than during ENO’s last foray with Castor and Pollux where the dances seemed disconnected and throwaway. As originally planned for the French court the dances add amusement and atmosphere and slight relief from the tragedy at the centre of the work. The very first example is with the dancers donning RAF uniforms in a dark blue colour, their vibrant routine surely caused a raucous applause and added some light relief to a very sombre beginning. The six male and six female dancers appear in many guises, zombie-like denizens of the underworld (following the cross dressing personifications of Vengeance and Jealousy) to spirits of beautiful women. The biggest tableaux using the dancers is the “party scene” with the appearance of Aoife O’Sullivan as Cupid with black glittery wings aboard a Spitfire covered in pink glitter (standing in for Cupid’s chariot), surely the campest prop to grace a stage for some time! On the side of the pink plane there’s a large stylised fan on a podium with a period microphone awaiting in a jazz siren style for an Italian captive of love (Sophie Junker) to sing Chi teme d’amore Il grato martire (left in the original Italian here).
It would be impossible to overstate how towering Sarah Connolly’s performance was. She dispatched this difficult role with such elegance and stamina. I was totally blown away. Her unwavering intensity while singing in the original soprano key was spectacular. A few times she sacrificed the beauty of the line for the sake of expression, especially when addressing Creon and Jason but it added such variety and pathos I don’t think even the most narrow-minded critic will find fault. When William Christie gave her the CD set of his recording and told Connolly this was the role for her, he was absolutely right. Once she hits the floor in Act Three and sings her pivotal aria Quel Prix de mon Amour the transformation from wronged wife to a woman driven by pain looking for revenge is unavoidable. Soon after she discards both her jacket and skirt to continue the scene in a black negligee and evoke the spirits of hades to help her. McVicar uses the stage lift as the pit where smoke and her demonic assistants come through. It was a huge relief that he chose such a standard way to introduce them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel needlessly. At this point she is armed with a large kitchen knife that is her companion for the rest of the production as she closes in to her final act of vengeance against Jason. Fittingly the last coup de théâtre belongs to Medea, when the corner of the set comes apart and she sings her final words to Jason and then she is elevated and flies away. This was another example of the Director not trying to re-invent the action but followed on the steps of both Charpentier and Euripides in the Greek original. Also another telling approach that looks back at the performance practises of ancient Greek drama, was how the dead bodies of Creon and Orontes are presented. They appear on trolleys under the cover of blood splattered sheets. A very similar device to how the dead would be wheeled on an Ekkyklema a practise maybe not that familiar to British audiences but anyone with any background in the Classics would instantly recognise it.
As you can tell by now, I am very happy with the staging and it all came together so beautifully to make up one of the best opera evenings I’ve ever attended. Connolly gives a definitive interpretation, surely a highlight of her illustrious career so far. The rest of the cast get somewhat overshadowed by her presence but some great singing comes from Katherine Manley especially in her duets with Jason and Medea revealing a voice of great flexibility and a characterful actress. Jeffrey Francis give a very potent performance with voice to spare. The slightly goofy personenregie for Orontes does benefit by the lightness of touch that Roderick Williams brings to it. Brindley Sherratt brought gravitas and made for a great opponent to Medea, but crucially relaxed when left with Creusa away from his public function. Aoife O’Sullivan, Oliver Dunn and Rhian Lois give performances full of gusto and promise.
The orchestra gave a vibrant reading of the score with a few raw edges that will disappear before the first night. Like with Castor and Pollux Christian Curnyn manages to coax some idiomatic playing from the players while taking them out of their comfort zone. The chorus sings beautifully through the evening, sometimes in military uniform and others in evening dress from stage and pit. Navigates Charpentier’s deceptively subtle but fiendishly difficult melodies with skill and obvious affection.
If you’ve read this far, I congratulate you and also implore you to go and see this truly wonderful production, do not be put off by the translation or the lack of “period instruments” this is an occasion to treasure and an all too rare chance to see this masterpiece of the French Baroque in London. This is one of those performances you will be telling friends about twenty years from now…GO!
Some Tweets from the evening