Aribert Reimann - Medea
Komische Oper, Berlin - 2017
Steven Sloane, Benedict Andrews, Nicole Chevalier, Anna Bernacka, Nadine Weissmann, Ivan Turšić, Günter Papendell, Eric Jurenas
Opera Platform - 21 May 2017
Revived for this new production at the Komische Oper in Berlin, Aribert Reimann's Medea still sounds as wildly demented as it did when it received its world premiere in Vienna in 2010. Its harsh dissonance hasn't become any easier to listen to over the last seven years, but the purpose of the composer's choice of this particular classical Greek myth has certainly become clearer in how it reflects certain vital aspects of our modern society and how people behave when pushed to their limits.
For good reason then, Reimann's work is one that pushes well beyond the boundaries of tonality. It opens quietly, but it doesn't stay that way for long, building into a tumultuous cacophony that reflects Medea's utter desperation and anger by the end of Act I. The second half of Medea sounds like something has been broken, the music limping along with occasional blasts of brass and squealing strings, the voice of Medea straining to hold herself together, struggling between anger and supplication, between love and the desire for revenge.
It's not easy listening, but then it's not easy watching someone's life collapse in front of you. Medea's life might just fall apart within the framework of a Greek myth or an opera, but the challenge is to make this feel real, relevant and important in the world today. Somehow though, even though the musical force of the work made a striking impression on its own terms, it was hard to see how it could be applied to real life when it received its premiere in 2010. The composer, if I recall, made some remarks about Jason's social climbing ambitions and about the work being about wanting to make a better life for yourself, but it hardly seemed like a matter of pressing social relevance.
In 2017 however that has changed completely and, regardless of what Reimann's intentions might have been and whether or not there was an element of Delphic prophesy in his vision, the refugee crisis and its handling by our governments in the years in-between throws a different light on the work. The fear and mistrust of foreign ways that has been generated and the growing danger of terrorism surely couldn't be more obvious and relevant to the German public at the Komische Opera in Berlin, or indeed to any European or American audience. Whether prophetic or not, it's the undoubted acuity of Reimann's adaptation of Franz Grillparzer's version of the Euripides' tragedy and the intense musical accompaniment that underlines the human nature of Medea's dilemma and treatment with a terrible degree of truth and conviction.
Medea and Jason are indeed refugees, fleeing their homeland of Colchis, bringing fear and suspicion along with them to Corinth. Creon is already wary, having heard of Medea's reputation as a practitioner of the dark arts. When a messenger from the Amphictyonic League appears and adds further fuel to the fire by describing how Medea used spells and potions to murder King Pelias, he is painting her as a terrorist and warning that it would be unwise to let these refugees into the country. With a difficult choice to make, since Jason and Medea have children, Creon agrees to give Jason shelter, but banishes Medea and offers his daughter Creusa as a new mother for them.
Well, we've also seen the fate of the children of refugees caught up in the political disputes and war-mongering of governments, and with that in mind it's hard not to feel on an intensely visceral level Medea's desperation and how this leads to the death of her children. Reimann's Medea is not a political statement or overtly anti-war treatment of the Greek tragedy, but as someone who lived through the allied destruction of Germany during the Second World War (and who has summoned up the forces of Armageddon in his scoring for his opera Lear), the composer unquestionably characterises the nature of an individual human being - and specifically a mother - caught up in such a terrible event.
It's a deeply troubled interiorised world that Reimann scores, one that evidently bears some comparison with how Strauss psychologically probed Elektra in that Greek tragedy, but evidently Reimann takes the atonal dissonance even further. There is scarcely a note in Medea that isn't mangled or pitched at a level that assaults the ears of the audience; there's no flow or melody, just a fractured structure that makes Medea seem like she is in the middle of a nightmare, an edgy sense of her trying to hold it together and lashing out in explosive outbursts, the music clashing with singing that rises towards a scream.
Benedict Andrews's direction and the production design for the Komische Medea adopt a similar reflection of devastation of mood and mindset that could be seen in the rocky cratered landscapes of Marco Arturo Marelli's Vienna premiere production. If anything - and it may be very much to do with sudden realisation of real-world context - this production seems to strike an even darker tone. There is at least greater emphasis placed upon measuring the weight of the words of the libretto and their meaning. In the black ash of the landscape, Medea literally tries to bury her past, her potions, her memories, even the Golden Fleece. When the future seems to hold nothing for her, she eventually buries that as well, with devastating consequences.
There is no question that Reimann's score delivers every ounce of impact that is implicit in Medea's actions, and Steven Sloane's conducting of the Komische orchestra brings that out forcefully. It also has to be brought out in the intensely demanding vocal score that Reimann has composed for the role of Medea, and that is fully undertaken by Nicole Chevalier, who gives a fearsome performance that matches the singing challenges, and at the same time achieves some measure of sympathy for her predicament. There are excellent performances elsewhere that manage to rise beyond the individual and the mythological to a more universal application of the themes. Ivan Turšić's Creon embodies the difficult position of applying the rule of law, while Günter Papendell's Jason and Anna Bernacka's Creusa try to adopt a caring but practical approach to the problem that they face. None of it however will be enough to appease the rage of the abused and mistreated Medea or prevent the disaster that is about to be unleashed.
Links: Komische Oper, Opera Platform