Saturday, 30 May 2015

Cherubini - Medea (Geneva, 2015 - Webcast)

Luigi Cherubini - Medea

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2015

Marko Letonja, Christof Loy, Daniel Okulitch, Grazia Doronzio, Andrea Carè, Alexandra Deshorties, Sara Mingardo, Alexander Milev, Johanna Rudström, Magdalena Risberg

ARTE Concert - 24 April 2015

I'm not proud of it, but I have to admit that my first thought on seeing the two sulky baseball-capped skate-boarding teenage sons of Medea and Jason racing across the stage in the 2015 Geneva production of Cherubini's version of Medea was - well, I won't be too shocked or distraught when their mother kills those two at the end of this production. A cruel thought maybe, but it's one that is perhaps intended by the director. Almost certainly, since the director here is Christof Loy, and there's little that isn't precisely calculated in a Christof Loy production.

The other thing you can expect from a Christof Loy production is that it will be set in a more modern era. None of this classical stuff, even for the sedate, elegant music of Luigi Cherubini, which is Mozartian with more Classical flourishes. Loy however does indeed take his cue from the music, recognising that there is an edge lying beneath the measured surface of the musical arrangements, if you can cut through the layers of varnish. It might be a myth, but presenting Medea in a modern perspective does just that, forcing you to really consider whether there's a universal, recognisable truth in the characterisation and the situation.

Not everyone like Loy's modernisations and abstractions - and you could question whether it is really necessary in Greek tragedy - but there's no question that his direction and acting instruction makes opera characters fully three-dimensional and human. As such, the creation and playing of Medea herself is a fascinating case study and challenge for any performer. She can be seen and depicted as a monster, but not here. The structure of Cherubini's opera, the music that underscores it, and Christof Loy's direction all go into ensuring that you can sympathise to some degree with Medea, even if you can't justify her actions.

The same attention however needs to be paid to the other characters in order to fully understand Medea and her actions. This is the real trick and it's one that Loy doesn't miss. Despite the impression given at the opening with the children, he doesn't make cheap or easy shortcuts either. You actually feel sorry for Jason as well here for foolishly crossing Medea and betraying her with a marriage alliance with Glauce. If Medea was a sorceress who had indeed bewitched Jason, it would be easy to consider him an injured party, but that's not the case here. Under Loy's direction, taking its cue from Cherubini, Medea is a formidable character, with force of personality and dangerously seductive. Jason's only mistake is in underestimating her as a woman.

Creon too. Loy uses Medea's scenes with Creon to emphasise her particular allure. He sets it up well by showing the King as something of a skirt-chaser, all touchy-feely with his courtiers (or, I don't know, business team or assistants or whatever they are in their smart modern suits). Creon is amenable to the right kind of persuasion then, and this Medea knows it, managing to strip him down in her encounter with him, before he quickly comes to his senses, or takes the opportunity of an interruption to make his escape. He doesn't get off so easy of course.

Even Medea's children aren't as crudely characterised as I make it appear. They are rather just unfortunate bystanders caught in the middle of terrible events that are not of their doing. It's clever directing, allowing you to see the surface impression (which is usually all you get in most productions of Medea), and then reveal a deeper, more human truth. If there's anything monstrous about Medea, it's the situations, it's society, it's the depths of despair that the human heart plummet and it's the extreme actions that one can be driven to in a such a situation that appears to offer no way out.

Cherubini's rich and dramatic score allows for this kind of interpretation in Médée. There's a measure of opera seria expression in the composition, each of the main characters give an opportunity to air their grievances in arias and long scenes, with some Romantic flourishes that elevate and deepen the human elements of the Greek tragedy. This is reflected in the set design, the wood-panelled state-rooms (reminiscent of Loy's Roberto Devereux), giving way (in sliding panels reminiscent of Loy's
Jenůfa) to more expansive vistas of the nature in outside world, to the colour and drama of the kingdom of Corinth.

The structure of the work offers opportunities for expression for all the principals, and the detail here is well presented and sung well also. Glauce's fitting for a wedding dress sets the scene well at the beginning of Act I, Grazia Doronzio expressing her misgivings about Medea and capturing the delicacy of the situation well. In Cherubini's
Médée, even Neris, Medea's maidservant, has her own expression, sympathising with the situation of her mistress, giving a balance to the work. Neris is sung rather well by Sara Mingardo. Daniel Okulitch is a solid if rather young looking Creonte, and Andrea Carè a fine Jason. Loy's production was conceived with Jennifer Larmore in mind, only for the American soprano to be forced to withdraw through illness. Alexandra Deshorties proves a fine late replacement, her Medea sung forcefully enough although her voice is a little thin on the recitative sections. She has plenty of allure and character.

With Deshorties performance and Loy's direction, this does prove to be an interesting Medea - one that is fully fired and clearly motivated by human impulses. Arguably however, Loy humanises this Medea a little too much, and we lose a little of the opera's high drama. I don't know whether it's to do with the use of the Italian version rather than the original French version (this production uses the 1909 Carlo Zangarini version in its 1953 Maria Callas incarnation) or whether it's conducted in line with this characterisation, but Marko Letonja's conducting tones down some of the more extravagant Romantic flourishes and crescendos in Cherubini's score, finding rather a measure of elegance in its swoops and swirls. A little less restraint in the appropriate places might however have made this Geneva production a little more exciting.

Links: ARTE Concert, Grand Théâtre de Genève