Stage Door Review


Wednesday, May 8, 2024


by Luigi Cherubini, directed by David McVicar

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

May 3-17, 2024

Medea: “Un cuor di madre batte nel mio petto. Natura, or tu invano parli a me”

The Canadian Opera Company’s first-ever production of Cherubini’s Medea is absolutely spectacular. As Medea, Sondra Radvanovsky gives the most thrilling performance I have seen in the theatre for ages. The COC Orchestra under Lorenzo Passerini and the entire cast reveal Medea as more than a virtuoso vehicle for soprano but a masterpiece that serves as a key link between Gluck and Beethoven. All this makes Medea a must-see for every opera-lover.

Cherubini’s Medea is such a powerfully imagined work that it is one of the rare cases where it does not matter that we are not seeing it in its original form. When the opera premiered in Paris in 1797, it was just three years after the end of Reign of Terror, and Cherubini (1760-1842) seems to have channelled into this opera the feelings of an entire nation that had had a glimpse into the abyss.

Cherubini’s librettist François-Benoît Hoffman based his libretto on both on Euripides’ Medea of 431BC and Pierre Corneille’s Medée of 1635. The action takes place in Corinth on the day of the hero Jason’s wedding to Glauce, daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. Jason and his Argonauts had already won fame by stealing the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes of Colchis. Jason could not have accomplished this feat without the help of Aeëtes’s daughter Medea, an enchantress. Medea leaves her own country behind to be with Jason with whom she has fallen in love. They marry and are happy for ten years before Jason realizes it will better suit his ambition to have a Greek wife rather than a foreign wife like Medea. Claiming his marriage to Medea is illegal because she is foreign, he pursues and wins the innocent Glauce. Medea, enraged, seeks revenge by destroying what is dearest to Jason, namely his wife and two children. What is particularly notable about Hoffman’s libretto is that he changes the ending found in his sources.

In Euripides and Corneille, Medea flies away in a chariot drawn by dragons in triumph, unpunished by the gods for the murders she has committed. In Euripides, Medea’s victory is a comment on the general immorality of the gods. In Corneille, Medea’s victory is the final blow for Jason, who commits suicide. Hoffman’s libretto provides a less problematic ending than those of his sources. In Hoffman’s important variation on the myth, Medea, having punished Jason to the ultimate extent and having killed what is dearest to her, has no further reason for living and so immolates herself as she embraces her slain children.

Despite its gruesome subject matter, the opera first appeared in French the style of an opéra comique, meaning that it employed spoken dialogue instead of recitatives. (Bizet’s Carmen of 1875 also was first performed in this style.) In 1989 the Royal Opera House Covent Garden decided to perform Medea in the original version and it proved extremely disappointing. The music and singing aroused enormous passions only to clunk to the ground whenever the singers had to speak. It is no wonder that in 1855 when the German composer Franz Lachner prepared a German-language version of the opera, he composed recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue. In 1909 Lachner’s version was translated into Italian. This is the version that Maria Callas made famous in 1953 and in subsequent recordings, and this is the version that has become the most performed version ever since, including the present COC production.

The current COC production (co-owned by The Metropolitan Opera, Greek National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago) has relocated the action from sometime in Greek antiquity to the time of the opera’s premiere when the Empire style appeared, a style influenced by ancient Greece. Doey Lüthl has created sumptuous costumes for both men and women and the wedding of Giasone and Glauce looks like Jacques-Louis David’s monumental painting The Coronation of Napoleon (1807) come to life. Lüthl satirizes the supposed heroism of Jason and the Argonauts by dressing the Argonauts as stereotypical pirates.

Contrasting with the period costumes is the monumental sci-fi-like set designed by director David McVicar. The mismatch in period between the set and the costumes points to the story’s true setting outside of time in the realm of myth. Scenes inside the palace and temple are staged behind walls with two immense two-panelled sliding doors that open to show us the view. The walls and doors are meant to protect the world of native Corinthians from the world outside where Medea spends almost the entirety of the action.

Looming over the interior world is an enormous mirror angled at about 45º. The mirror allows to see as if from above the elaborate group scenes that McVicar stages in the space inside the walls. In terms of symbolism the mirror gives us a double point of view of everything we see in the inside world, representing the actions the participants see them and the same actions distorted as Medea sees them. Significantly, at the end when Medea lies next to her slain sons, we see her and them only in the angled mirror.

Radvanovsky’s performance* exists beyond all superlatives. This is the first time this century that I have seen an performer so fully inhabit a character vocally, physically and dramatically. When prone on the floor, Radvanovsky, clad in a long black gown with wavy, horizontal, overlapping panels, pulls herself along by her hands or forearms to make Medea look eerily reptilian.

Cherubini, who gives the other characters clear-cut classical vocal lines, gives Medea, whose part already lies very high, distinctly jagged vocal lines and rapid changes in volume. These factors mark both the deviousness and instability of the character and make it one of the most difficult in all opera. Radvanovsky has fully conquered these difficulties and uses them to delineate the changes in Medea’s emotions on a moment by moment basis. This is especially evident in Medea’s agonizing contemplation of her children which she loves as her offspring but hates as Jason’s. To this Radvanovsky also adds alterations in tone and timbre which renders her Medea as one of the most vocally and psychologically complex characters I’ve ever encountered in the theatre.

One moment Radvanovsky’s Medea will express outrage in full voice, the next she will murmur to herself how she longs for revenge, the next she will soften her tone and demeanour when she tries to ingratiate herself with Creonte to ask to stay in Corinth one more day or to Giasone to see her children one more time. Then, using in one of her most chilling techniques, she sings to herself in an odd metallic tone as she congratulates herself on her success. Few if any in the audience will ever have seen an actor or singer mine every aspect of the human voice to such thrilling effect.

Though there is no point in staging Cherubini’s opera without the perfect Medea, the other roles are crucial, too, and the COC has surrounded Radvanovsky with a constellation of outstanding voices. As Giasone, Matthew Polenzani wields an heroic tenor, but he is able to infuse it with undertones of fear and horror when he directly encounters Medea and her deeds.

Alfred Walker displays a cavernously deep voice as Creonte with which he expresses all the nobility and strength of the character. Janai Brugger has a clear, well-rounded soprano as Glauce which she uses beautifully to convey Glauce’s growing terror as her wedding to Giasone approaches. Zoie Reams has a mezzo-soprano of such richness, warmth and depth as Medea’s maid Neris that she make Neris stand as representative of steadfastness and humanity in stark contrast to Medea’s  instability and savagery. Reams’s commanding vocal presence makes her a talent to watch in the future.

Conductor Lorenzo Passerini draws a fiery performance from the COC orchestra. I was relieved that McVicar chose not to distract us during the overture so that we could concentrate on the greatness of Cherubini’s score. Beethoven owned a copy of Medea and held the composer as one of the greatest of his age. Constantly you hear the later Beethoven in the overture, although, of course, the influence is the other way round. Modulations in the music and Cherubini’s choral writing repeatedly anticipate Beethoven’s work. The orchestra and cast play and sing this unfamiliar work with such passion it overwhelmed me with its power. This Medea will go down as one of my all-time greatest theatre experiences.

*Those planning to attend should note that Chiara Isotton replaces Radvanovsky as Medea on May 9, 11, 15 and 17.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Sondra Radvanovsky as Medea, © 2022 Marty Sohl; Sondra Radvanovsky as Medea, © 2022 Marty Sohl; Wedding Scene from Medea, Sondra Radvanovsky as Medea (lower left corner), © 2024 Michael Cooper; Alfred Walker as Creonte, Janai Brugger as Glauce and Matthew Polenzani as Giasone, © 2024 Michael Cooper.

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