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Posts Tagged ‘Cherubini’s Médée’

Cherubini’s Médée’s claim to fame has less to do with Beethoven’s interest in the Italian composer’s orchestral narrative writing but rather Maria Callas’s assumption of the title role (in its Italian version with recitatives). It is not difficult to understand why a singing actress would be interested in it – once Medea is on stage, the show is about her and the way Cherubini devised the part makes little concession to vocal narcissism. It is a Kunstdiva role through and through. This does not mean that you don’t need exceptional soloists to complete the cast – both the parts of Jason and Dircé are high lying and fairly exposed. And the orchestra does not give singers a rest.

I have to be honest: although I recognize the historical importance of Cherubini’s Médée, I cannot really say that I like it. I am unable to find a melodic genius behind this score, which does not strike me as harmonically profound either. And its nervous, relentless orchestra is so uniformly busy that, in the ends, it gives me the impression rather of fidgetiness than of intensity. In any case, the Schwerpunkt of a performance of Médée should be the way the TEXT is colored by these singers’ declamatory powers against the backdrop of the orchestral filigree. And that is why I find the Salzburg Festspiele’s effort self-defeating. First of all, the Grosses Festspielhaus is the wrong venue for an opera like this. In its huge stage and big auditorium, the text is largely lost. Cherubini makes it even more difficult by having most of Médée’s music in the most uncongenial part of the soprano voice – and most of Jason’s in the less comfortable part of the tenor’s voice. Having to project over the Vienna Philharmonic – even reined-in by Thomas Hengelbrock’s “historically informed” conducting – these singers’ last concern was textual clarity. This fact alone made this evening’s performance pointless.

To make things worse, not one singer in the cast seemed truly idiomatic in the language of Corneille and Racine. I understand that the original casting of Sonya Yoncheva in the title role was these performances’ raison d’être: the Bulgarian soprano is a capable actress with a very distinctive voice and long experience in French roles under the approval of French audiences. I cannot say the same about Elena Stikhina. If her voice is more powerful than Yoncheva’s (and therefore more appropriate to the large hall), the glory of this Russian soprano is not its lower and middle register. As a result, most of the text was lost to the public and, when you could indeed make out what she was saying, it hardly sounded flashing and formidable as it should. The tonal quality itself is appealing in its blend of metal and velvet, but, in spite of all her commitment, she is not the woman for the task. I knew Rosa Feola exclusively from recordings and, judging by what I heard today, she must have not been in very good voice. There was unexpected tension in her high notes and her phrasing sounded graceless and unaffecting. I will have to hear her again before I form my opinion. I had low expectations about Pavel Cernoch’s Jason. As written above, this is a high-lying part, and it did not flatter Mr. Cernoch’s tight upper register. His voice sounded bottled-up and rough-edged. He did not give an amorous impression in his scenes with Dircé and was overshadowed by Ms. Stikhina’s more exuberant instrument. Vitalij Kowaljow’s large bass baritone made all the difference in the world as Créon. I certainly understand the temptation of hearing Cherubini’s Medea in capital letters with a big orchestra. But then you’ll really need the likes of Maria Callas, Renata Scotto and Jon Vickers to make it happen.

Under Mr. Hengelbrock’s disciplinarian baton, the Vienna Philharmonic hardly sounded Beethovenian, but played with animation and clarity throughout – the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor also deserves praise for its rich yet precise singing.

At any rate, even if the musical performance had offered everything the listener could hope for, Simon Stone’s superficial and extravagant staging is the one who put the bullet in the heart of this opera. In its kitsch, realistic and various sets, the story of Medea is reduced to soap opera depth and the caliber of this most shocking of classical tragedies is reduced to the immigration agenda. Here, Medea is a Russian bride who hit jackpot living the wonders of bourgeois life with a rich and handsome husband, until she finds that he has another woman. Then she has to return to her shitty hometown (where she has to use an internet cafe when there is no shortage of power) to realize that it is unfair – dove sono i bei momenti by the lake, the expensive kitchen appliances? She only needs an episode of public embarrassment by immigration authorities on  returning to her alpine paradise to settle things with her ex, before she decides that enough is enough, the kids will have to die. That plot has very little to do with Medea, who never was simply a housewife to start with. In Mr. Stone’s view, it all sounds dangerously close to a warning against marrying crazy foreign women. When things go wrong, they won’t give up before you’ll have to call the police. Seriously? And I have to say that the closing acts are anticlimactic as they can be. In the original plot, Dircé is burnt to death in a cursed dress – and here she is just stabbed. Yes, stabbed. Considering that knives already existed in the days of Euripides and Seneca, if the idea were having such a prosaic death scene, a knife would have been chosen, wouldn’t it? The final scene first looks as if you’re going to have an extraordinary pyrotechnic special effect, but it seems that the budget had already been used up by then. Boo.

In these performances, all dialogues have been deleted, some of them replaced by messages from Medea in Jason’s cellphone, the text written by the director.

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