Friday 27 January 2023

Mangling Médée: why are stylistically appropriate performances of Cherubini's opera so rare?

Cherubini: Medea - Sondra Radvanovsky - Metropolitan Opera (Photo Metropolitan Opera)
Cherubini: Medea - Sondra Radvanovsky - Metropolitan Opera (Photo Metropolitan Opera)

Mangling Médée: In the wake BBC Radio 3's broadcast of Cherubini's Medea from New York's Metropolitan Opera, we look at why stylistically appropriate performances of Cherubini's 1797 opera remain such a rarity

Last October (2022), the Metropolitan Opera in New York presented its first-ever production of Cherubini's Medea (recently heard on BBC Radio 3). The work was famously associated with Maria Callas, and the Met history of the opera is linked to Rudolph Bing's failure to woo the diva to sing the role in New York. Perhaps because of this history, the performance in October used the version of the opera that Callas performed. This is a version created in 1909 for the work's debut at La Scala, Milan. This used the shortened version of the opera which Cherubini presented in Vienna in 1809, replaced the spoken dialogue with recitatives that had been created for a German version of the opera presented in Frankfurt in 1855 and added an entirely new Italian translation. 

The result is to present a stylistic mish-mash which is a long way from Cherubini's intentions, adjusting it to suit the style of early 20th-century Italian opera with its emphasis on verismo, and this includes slow tempos reflecting that the leading roles were being sung by vastly different voices to those of the original singers. In fact, that 1909 La Scala performance starred verismo soprano Ester Mazzoleni, though the work can hardly be counted as a success because it did not reoccur in Italy until Callas took it up, in Florence in 1953! 

Perhaps, you might say, that my concern over editions and versions is somewhat over-picky and that if the performance is good, we should not worry. But consider this. Cherubini’s original Médée premiered in 1797, just six years after Mozart's Die Zauberflote, and what if the Met considered putting on a performance of Mozart's Il flauto magico in an early 20th-century Italian translation with mid-19th century recitatives instead of the spoken dialogue, using voices more appropriate to middle period Verdi. There would surely be uproar, so why should Mozart's music be treated with a modicum of dignity and Cherubini's be routinely hacked about.

We should not get too hung up on the language, Cherubini himself supervised both German and Italian versions of the opera during his lifetime, but the constant throughout was that they had spoken dialogue. He seems to have been rather attached to the opera comique genre. After the success of his tragédie lyrique, Démophoon, in 1788 he largely stuck to the opera comique form, and most of his major operas from this period use spoken dialogue. If we replace dialogue with recitative, we not only change the sense of pace and the amount of detail that it is possible to convey (recitative goes at a far slower rate than spoken dialogue) but dramatic moments are given a different balance.

Consider just one example, Médée's first entry amid the celebrations for Dircé and Jason's wedding. Into the sung celebrations, Médée appears, thundering spoken imprecations; in the right hands it can be thrilling. Elizabeth Connell's appearance, from the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at a concert performance of the opera with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment remains a terrific memory of what it is possible to achieve.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that aspects of the opera are so forward-looking, written only six years after Mozart's final operas, Cherubini creates a leading role that is easily adjusted to suit 19th-century Romantic tastes. Listening to Sondra Radvanovsky's fine performance from the Met, it was clear that stylistically she was associating Medea with Norma and other great 19th-century Italian roles, rather than considering the work's 18th-century roots. Somehow, the Classicism of Cherubini's style is getting lost. Beethoven regarded Cherubini as one of the greatest composers of his time; his opera Lodoiska helped inspired Fidelio, and of course, for a long time Beethoven's opera suffered from a similar style problem. 

20th-century performances of Fidelio were based around later 19th-century views of performance style and voice type, though now we offer a greater element of purality in styles, but there is still a similar dialogue problem to Cherubini's opera. I have heard several performances of Fidelio with dialogue removed entirely, and when did you last hear a production that didn't apply swinging cuts, though I doubt anyone would dare apply recitatives to Fidelio. But when the Royal Italian Opera presented Beethoven's Fidelio at Covent Garden in the 1850s and 1860s, not only was it sung in Italian but there were new recitatives arranged by Manfredo Maggioni. I have a libretto for a performance sung by the Italian tenor Enrico Tambelik (whose roles included Manrico in Il Trovatore and who created the role of Alvaro in La forza del destino). So that 1909 La Scala performance of Medea was tapping into a long tradition of adjusting non-Italian works to suit Italian 19th-century performance styles. But that does not mean we should continue the practice.

However, Cherubini's Médée remains on the sidelines, still awaiting a reasonable body of stylistically appropriate performances. Even in 2017, when Wexford Festival Opera presented the work, they did so in Italian with recitatives, but at least conductor Stephen Barlow used the tempos that Cherubini intended rather than the later Romantic ones.

You only have to look at the record catalogues, if you don't want Callas then the pickings are rather scarce and if you want it in French then you are left with Patrick Fournillier's 1995 live recording from the Festiva Martina Franca with Iano Tamar and Luca Lombardo on Nuovo Era. 

Cherubini's Médée remains a relative rarity, in whatever form it takes. With spoken dialogue, it becomes rarer still, and there is a tendency to accept any performance as being better than nothing. Recent scholarship has revealed Cherubini's deleted final aria for Médée and in an ideal world performances of the opera complete in the original version, in French and in a stylistically appropriate, perhaps even period style, would be reasonably accessible. As it is, we have to wait.

What remains amazing is that whilst in many other areas period performance styles and habits are finding their way into mainstream performances, with Médée, the biggest influence on performers remains what Callas did. 

The transmission of the Met's performance of Cherubini's Medea, conducted by Carlo Rizzi with Sondra Radvanovsky and Matthew Polenzani is still available on BBC Sounds

Update: a correspondent has pointed out that there is a fine DVD recording on Belair from the Monnaie in Brussels with Christoph Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski with Nadja Michael and Kurt Streit.

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