Sunday 10 February 2013

Medea music

Title page of the first edition of the full score of Médée by Cherubini, 1797.
Title page of the first edition
of the full score of 
Médée by Cherubini, 1797.
The story of Medea is one which has had some fascination with composers, particularly in the 17th and 18th century, partly I think because Medea is the ultimate bad girl. She behaves badly and is unapologetic, as such she does not fit into the virgin (fallen or otherwise), whore or tart with a heart mould that most women in opera tend to. Before Carmen, Medea is one of those rare characters who is her own woman. Her story falls into two parts, first she helps Jason get the Golden Fleece, but when they return to Corinth he abandons her and in revenge she kills their children. Later, in Athens she marries Aegeus but feels threatened when Theseus appears and tries to kill him, only to discover that Theseus is Aegeus long lost son. These two episodes give composers the choice between two similar plots, Corinth with the grisly killing of the children, and Athens with the less grisly but still dramatic plot.

Lully's Thesee was premiered in 1675 by the Paris Opera at the Chateau of St. Germain-en-Laye, with the first public performance in Paris later in 1675. With a libretto by Philippe Quinault, it is the third of Lully's tragedie lyriques. The plot is the Athens episode with Theseus, so no grisly killing of children. It was popular, generating parodies and remaining in the repertoire of the Paris Opera throughout the 18th century, with over a dozen revivals.

The story of Medea seems to have had some fascination with French composers, because not only did Lully write one but a few years after his death Marc-Antoine Charpentier did as well. Though Charpentier had written chamber operas for his patronness, Mlle de Guise, Lully's monopoly on opera meant that Charpentier was prevented from writing a full scale tragedie lyrique. His Medee was premiered by the Paris Opera in 1693 (after Lully's death). It has a libretto by Thomas Corneille who was the brother of the more famous dramatist, Pierre Corneille who had written a Medee play in 1635. The opera covers the story in Corinth with Medea even killing their children at the end. Perhaps it was too strong stuff for the 17th century audience, but the work was not a great success though it is now regarded as one of the finest 17th century French operas.

There are also a couple of other lesser known 18th century settings involving the sorceress. Mondonville's Thesee of 1765 and Salomon's Medee et Jason of 1713, though I am unclear as to exactly what elements of the story were included in these.

Lully's Thesee had a curious after-life however, as the libretto was the source of Nicola Haym's libretto for Handel's third opera for London, Teseo. Quite remarkably, Haym's Italian libretto sticks quite closely to the French libretto, so that Teseo is in five acts (the only Handel opera seria to be so) and it abandons the concept of the exit aria. There seems to be some indication that the intention had been to have some sort of hybrid opera seria which included significant dance elements, but this seems to have disappeared probably for economic reasons. It was premiered in 1713 and received a total of 13 performances before being dropped, not to be revived again until 1947.

Medea crops up in 17th century Italian opera in Cavalli's Giasone, which covers in rather strange fashion, the events surrounding Jason's acquiring of the Golden Fleece, but it is basically a series of mis-matched lovers and more of a comedy than grim tragedy. Then, apart from a cantata by Caldara, there seems to be something of a gap. Simon Mayr, the teacher of Donizetti and an important figure in early Italian bel canto, wrote Medea in Corinto for Naples in 1813, to a libretto by Felice Romani. The opera starred Isabella Colbran in the title role and covered the gory Corinth plot complete with the murdering of her children. This was two years before Rossini came to Naples, when Colbran subsequently became Rossini's mistress and muse.

This Naples connection may be significant for Mercadante's Medea which premiered there in 1851. Mercadante was director of the Naples conservatoire and Medea was the 52nd of Mercadante's 57 operas, but by the time it was written Mercadante had long been overtaken as a leading opera composer by Pacini and by Verdi.

Simon Mayr may perhaps have been inspired probably the most famous Medea opera, Medee by Luigi Cherubini. Though Cherubini was Italian, the opera is firmly in the French camp and can be seen as in interesting modernisation of the tragedie lyrique genre. The plot is Medea in Corinth, ending with the death of her children in a dramatic denouement.  It was based on Pierre Corneille's play Medee but was not in fact a through composed opera, it used spoken dialogue and was premiered in 1797 at the Theatre Feydeau in Paris (originally the company, as the Theatre de Monsieur, had been founded under the patronage of the Comte de Provence (later Louis XVIII) but was re-named after the arrest of the Royal Family. The work was not immediately popular, but an Italian version premiered in Vienna in 1802 and then in 1809 Cherubini produced a shortened Italian version also for Vienna.

Cherubini died in 1842 and in 1855 Franz Lachner produced a German version, based on the shortened Italian version, but with Lachner adding his own recitatives to replace spoken dialogue. (Cherubini never, in his lifetime, sanctioned a version with recitative). It is this version, translated back into Italian, which popularised the opera in the 20th century when it was revived for Maria Callas. Pier Paolo Passolini's film Medea evoked this triumph by casting Callas in the spoken role of Medea. It was her only film role.

20th century composers who have been inspired by the legend include Darius Milhaud, who wrote an opera on the subject to a libretto by his wife Madeleine, and Samuel Barber whose ballet Medea, later renamed The Cave of the Heart, was written for Martha Graham who premiered it in 1947.

English National Opera's production of Charpentier's Medee directed by David McVicar, with Sarah Connolly in the title role, conducted by Christian Curnyn, opens on Friday 15 February and runs in repertoire until Saturday 16 March. For more information see the ENO website.

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