Saturday, 16 February 2013

Medea at London Coliseum

Medea act 3, (c) ENO /Clive Barda
Medea act 3, (c)ENO/Clive Barda
Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Medea was produced in the period after Lully's death where the older composer's monopoly on writing opera for the Academie Royale de Musique (knowns as the Opera) dissolved. In fact, thanks to Lully's controlling hand on potential rivals, Charpentier was probably the most experienced operatic composer working at the Opera at the time. Medea wasn't his first opera, but it was his first (and only) full length grand opera. It wasn't a success and was not revived. The opera was brought to modern attention by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, and it was evidently Christie who suggested the work to Sarah Connolly. For the opera's UK stage premiere at English National Opera, Connolly played the title role in a stylish production directed by David McVicar, designed by Bunny Christie with Christian Curnyn conducting. We caught the opening night of the production on 15 February 2013 at the London Coliseum.


Any production of a French baroque opera needs to grapple with one problem early on, what to do about all the dancing and how to integrate it into the drama. By choosing to set the production in the 1940's, McVicar gave himself some scope, after all this was a society in which social dancing still played an important part. And there is a significant amount of dancing in the opera, of the five acts, four of them end with a divertissement, often quite closely integrated into the plot. (McVicar chose to omit the prologue with its obligatory glorification of Louis XIV).

Medea act 3, (c) ENO /Clive Barda Medea - Jeffrey Francis, Sarah Connolly (c) ENO/Clive Barda
Medea - Jeffrey Francis, Sarah Connolly (c) ENO/Clive Barda
Charpentier and his librettist, Thomas Corneille based their plot on the plays by Euripedes and Seneca, but they start the action well before Medea conjures the infernal powers of hell. For acts one and two, she is presented as a very much sympathetic and wronged woman. The drawback is that the first two acts, some 75 minutes of music, are rather slow and lack the impetus of the later three.

Medea (Sarah Connolly) and Jason (Jeffrey Francis) have arrived in Corinth, fleeing the son of the usurping King of Thessalay whom Medea has killed. They are taken in by the King of Corinth, Creon (Brindley Sherratt) and Jason pays court to Creon's daughter Creusa (Katherine Manley) ostensibly to win the affection of her doting father, but in fact because he has fallen in love with her, a fact which Medea suspects. If Creon is to fight Thessaly, then he needs the support of Orontes (Roderick Williams), who is expecting to gain the hand of Creusa. Thus Creusa and her father play a double game, deceiving both Medea and Orontes.

But Jason talks to his confidant Arcas (Oliver Dunn), who in turn talks to Medea's confidant Nerina (Rhian Lois). So that in act three, immediately after Jason has told Medea that he is not playing her false, Nerina confirms that she is. Medea falls back on her magic powers, raising the spirits of Jealousy and Vengeance and poisoning a dress which is a gift to Creusa.

From now one things go to pieces quite rapidly. Orontes is naturally furious when he finds out, but he is tidied away by the librettist. Medea gets her own back on Creon by raising a fleet of beautiful women who enchant Creon and drive him mad. Orontes is killed off stage. Medea triggers the poison in Creusa's dress and Creusa dies slowly, in Jason's arms. Then finally, Medea appears in her winged chariot, tells Jason that she has killed their children and flies off.

Charpentier's French contemporaries viewed him slightly askance because he had received training in Italy and his style was rather more Italian to them. Though this may have been a disadvantage when it came to the contemporary reception of Medea, it is one thing which makes his operas so fascinating nowadays. From the moment that Medea unleashes her infernal powers, Charpentier brings an Italianate harmonic complexity and richness to his writing for the sorceress. One of the wonderful things about the opera is its complex portrayal of Medea, she is not simply some sort of evil witch, but a conficted, wronged woman. Even the ending lacks the sort of triumphal glee which you could imagine another composer creating.

Bunny Christie's set was a section of a large room panelled in plain 18th century manner but styled very much of the 1940's. The most notable feature was the floor, which was mirrored to stunning effect. Apart from the apotheosis at the very end, the entire opera took place in this set which was regularly and flexibly re-dressed.

McVicar used the 1940's setting convincingly to create the feel of war-time machinations in some French chateau, with Sherratt's Creon dressed very much like De Gaulle. But it was rather alarming when, at the end of act 1, the young airmen started leaping about in lively and amusing fashion. The production involved 12 dancers and Lynne Page's choreography extended far beyond social dancing, to these lively set pieces which completely transcended any naturalism, but done with such confident bravura. The setting for the end of act 1 was reminiscent of a wartime RAF film, except suddenly the airmen leap about in a manner reminiscent of Broadway musical. It was a brilliant and confident statement from McVicar and Page which showed that they were blessedly unembarassed at fulfulling the requirements of baroque operatic dramaturgy, even if Page's choreography sometimes seemed at odds with the music

The close of act two brought forth a divertissement presented by Orontes for the entertainment Creusa. This was done very much as a contemporary cabaret, but Christie's coup was to have a huge pink spitfire as Cupid's chariot. From act three, the chorus were banished to the pit and Medea's conjurations were accompanied just by the dancers and vocal soloists. McVicar and Page very much created the feeling that the dance was integrated into the drama, the divertissements were not just added on. And there was a visual brilliance and richness to the designs which payed attention to the need for spectacle in such operas. It helped, of course, that at the centre of things the title role received such a strong performance.

Connolly created a wonderfully rounded portrayal in Medea. She was the complete wronged woman in acts one and two, so that we could fully sympathise with her raising of infernal powers in act three and her subsequent behaviour was highly coloured by our perceptions from the first half of the opera. Her singing was completely stylish and you can see why she wanted to play the role, such a vocal and dramatic challenge. Her final appearance, without chariot but rising in the air of her own volition, was magical and Connolly's authority and style stripped the vocal line of any feeling of triumphalism. This was a wronged woman, pushed to her very limits, not a demented witch. But always her performance was finely musical, within the styles and bounds of Charpentier's music, Connolly using the vocal line in a highly expressive way.

I have to confess that I was a little puzzled by the casting of Jeffrey Francis as Jason. Francis clearly has a feel for the music's style, but for much of the evening there was a feeling that it sat a little high for him and that he sang slightly louder than necessary. His performance was occasionnally rough round the edges, but in his quieter moments particularly with Manley's Creusa, he produced some beautiful moments. For his closing lines, when Creusa has died, he resorted to distorting the vocal line rather than staying within the music.

That said, Jason is a profoundly unsympathetic character throughout the opera. From the opening, he is lying to Medea and determined to drop her for Creusa (despite Creusa being promised to Orontes). Charpentier and Corneille seem to have made no attempt to soften the character at all, so he comes over as at best a bit of a cad.

For much of the opera Manley's Creusa had simply to be a delightful air-head who was in-love with the wrong man. This she did rather beautifully. McVicar introduced a gloss in the shape of a slight hint, in act one, of too much of a closeness between Creusa and her father. This was played up in act four, when all the women conjured by Medea to tempt Creon look like Creusa (with Manley playing the lead one) - no wonder the guy is driven to madness.

But with Creusa's death scene, Charpentier gives the character depth. Looking ravishing in the gold gown, and strikingly reflected in the mirrored floor, Manley turned in an extremely fine a moving account of her final aria.

Brindley Sherratt was a strong Creon, subtly inflecting his relationship with Manley's Creusa. His final scene was also his strongest as Creon has visions of the Styx. Sherratt brought to it all his customary intelligence and made us surprisingly sympathetic to the old fool.

Orontes could quite easily be a blustering fool, but casting Roderick Williams meant we got a more subtle, more fully rounded performance; the bluff airman in port briefly and in a hurry before flying off again.

The smaller roles were all well taken. Rhian Lois was Nerina, Medea's confidant, a relatively small but highly important and sympathetic role. Aoife O'Sullivan was Creusa's confidant Cleonis as well as playing Cupid in the act 2 divertissement. Oliver Dunn was both Arcas, Jason's confidant, as well as Vengeance. John McMunn played Jealousy, with Sophie Junker and Jeremy Budd in other small roles. Tenors McMunn and Budd both contributed some lovely flexible high tenor singing which rather put that of Jeffrey Francis in the shade.
Christian Curnyn in the pit ensured that everything was played and sung with style. UK companies are relatively new at performing French baroque opera, but both singers and instrumentalists showed that they have successfully started to capture the style. The ENO orchestra was in the pit, with just imported recorder and theorbo players, and the results sounded very convincing. The whole performance was perhaps quite stately and big boned, but in a theatre the size of the London Coliseum this was inevitable. What Curnyn and his performers showed was that it was possible to play this style of music in the Coliseum and make it work and be stylish.

The opera was sung in a new translation by Christopher Cowell who has done many translations for ENO and for other companies, unfortunately something odd seems to have happened along the way. Cowell's language often veered very far from the simple and direct, rather tying itself in knots and, quite simply, his words did not fit the music. This is partly the problem of stress, there just are not enough words with feminine endings in English. But surely, it was not so necessary for the piece to sound as if there were too many syllables at the ends of phrases. Cowell's translation seemed to neither flow well, nor to sit well with the music.

Doing French baroque opera at the London Coliseum is always going to be a risky business, both in terms of getting an audience and in terms of making the music fit the theatre. But McVicar and his team have come up with a powerful and very stylish response to Charpentier's opera, with a strongly sung and richly characterised account of the title role from Sarah Connolly.
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