Marc-Antoine Charpentier - Médée
Theater Basel, 2015
Andrea Marcon, Nicolas Brieger, Magdalena Kožená, Anders J. Dahlin, Luca Tittoto, Meike Hartmann, Robin Adams, Silke Gäng, Yukie Sato, Jenny Högström, Regina Dahlen, Tiago Pinheiro de Olivieira, Daniel Issa, Ismael Arróniz Gónzales, Santiago Garzon
Culturebox - 21 January 2015
Compared to some other versions of the Medea story, Marc-Antoine Charpentier's musical arrangements and Thomas Corneille's libretto for Médée can seem somewhat dry and formal. Musically it's a little austere, the baroque instrumentation of plucked strings and theorbo not quite as expressive as you might find elsewhere in other versions of the work. Medea however relies on the shock of the climax, and if it takes a little time getting there, Charpentier's conclusion is up there with the best of them.
A lot of course depends on the staging, not that there have been many productions of this work since it was first performed in 1693, and just as much rests on the singer playing the part of Medea. Theater Basel's 2015 production may be updated to a more modern setting, but it retains the simplicity of line of Charpentier's score, and it relies heavily on the casting of Magdalena Kožená to supply all the fire that is needed to bring out the underlying darkness that the score itself barely hints at. And, largely, it succeeds.
The modern setting of Creon's Corinth here has something of the look of a Soviet dictatorship, albeit one that revels in the luxury of its own success and power. Assurance of that power is however, as we discover later, a fatal mistake where Medea is concerned. Creon however believes that an alliance between his daughter Creusa and Jason will consolidate his position, Jason having recently fled Thessaly looking for asylum. Jason is a warrior Creon can use, but it would not be in his interests to have a woman like his wife Medea in Corinth. She's the reason for their taking flight, the people of Thessaly troubled by her sorcery. Medea is therefore "asked to leave" by Creon, and, as we know, she takes terrible revenge for this, and for Jason's betrayal in leaving her and staying behind to marry Creusa.
The mechanics of laying out the history and the relationships between each of the figures isn't the most invigorating, Charpentier placing additional emphasis here on Medea forming an alliance with Oronte, who has been displaced from Creusa's affections by the arrival of Jason in the court of Corinth. There are certainly a few dramatic touches to add some colour, often coming at the end of each of the acts. Director Nicholas Brieger tries to integrate some of these more baroque elements in a different way. Act II, for example, ends with an kind of cabaret show where the Italian singer wears a red wig, seemingly parodying the red-haired Medea, but it doesn't really follow the idea through.
Act III of Médée also ought to end with Medea enacting the familiar scene of her performing her sorcery over a cauldron, preparing the poison for the dress that she will present to Creusa. Charpentier and Corneille's version takes an even more colourful approach to this scene than usual, the stage directions specifying that the robe is "brought by flying demons", with Medea's state of mind given corporeal form in the shape of La Jealousie and La Vengeance, through them forging a direct link to Hell. The demons are there all right in the Basel staging, as are Jealousy and Vengeance, and the force of Medea's passions are all there in Kožená's singing, but it still doesn't quite reach the level of intensity found in Euripides or even Cherubini's opera version of this scene.
Sorcery plays its part most openly in Act IV, where Medea evades Creon's guards and drives him to madness when she turns them into beguiling women, but the implication that comes though most strongly in Corneille's libretto is that Medea's power is not her sorcery or her temperament. It's herself as a woman, and the underestimation of a woman's power by Creon. You're mistaken, she tells Creon in this scene, if you think your laws apply to me - "Souviens-toi, je suis Médée". Charpentier's woman scorned doesn't just condemn Creusa to a painful death in a poisoned robe, and doesn't just destroy Jason and her own children (as horrifying as this is alone), she destroys Creon, leaves his court in flames and pretty much leaves an obliterated Corinth in her wake. Now, that's one heck of a Medea.
If the baroque music isn't quite expressive or discordant enough to get this across in modern terms - though Andrea Marcon and the Basel orchestra certainly find plenty of colour and dynamic in the score - it's abundantly clear in the writing for the mezzo-soprano voice and in the delivery of it by Magdalena Kožená. I haven't heard a lot of Kožená over the last decade, but she demonstrates here that her voice is as powerful as it ever was. It's such a full and richly toned voice, strong and controlled right across the range, and utterly dramatic when it comes to those moments of Medea expressing the full extend of her fury. Anders J. Dahlin's haute-contre doesn't stand a chance against such a force, but his Jason is no wimp either, steely rather, capable of fine expression. There is a fine performance too from Meike Hartmann's Creusa (her death scene almost devastating) and a solid baritone Creon in Luca Tittoto.