Opera’s Murderin’ Medea slays Berlin Twice!

Callas-centenary fever is fueling the fascination with Medea that started when the Met opened last season with Sondra Radvanovsky in Cherubini’s opera.

Maria Callas was born in Upper Manhattan one hundred years ago this Saturday, December 2. Of her many operatic roles, the iconic Greek-American soprano was particularly identified with Medea. On stage, she often portrayed the mythic sorceress, and after her opera career ended, a non-singing Callas starred in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s uneven film of Medea. As commemorations of the soprano’s centenary continue, Medea operas dominate the 2023-24 season.

Midway into director Todd Haynes’ unsettling new film May December, a famous actress played by Natalie Portman meets with high school theater students, and she’s asked why she relishes playng a “bad” character. She instantly mentions Medea who takes the lives of her own children as revenge against their unfaithful father. Following Callas, some of today’s leading divas are similarly drawn to Medea: Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden this month offered both Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s and Luigi Cherubini’s versions of Médée in which their leading ladies, Magdalena Koženâ and Marina Rebeka respectively, triumphed!

Opera performers lit in bright reds, greens and yellows sing on stage
A scene from the Charpentier production featuring Magdalena Kozena. Ruth Walz

Recent interest in Medea operas began somewhat before Callas-centenary fever broke out when the Metropolitan Opera opened last season with Sondra Radvanovsky starring in its first-ever mounting of Cherubini’s opera. Though a rousing success, the company failed to honorably answer the recurrent question: “How do you solve a problem like Medea?”

Though Italian by birth, Cherubini spent most of his life in Paris and Médée, his most important composition—which premiered in 1797—is an opéra-comique: not a comedy but a work in which spoken dialogue connects its musical numbers. Though Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Beethoven’s Fidelio still retain their dialogue, operas like Bizet’s Carmen are usually performed with sung connecting recitatives not written by their composer.

Soon after its premiere, Cherubini’s Médée found favor in German rather than in French, and the composer himself authorized an abridged version in that language to which sung recitatives composed by Franz Lachner were added after Cherubini’s death. A 1909 Italian translation of the Lachner was the Medea that Callas embraced, but why did the Met in 2022 decide to stick with a now-discredited 20th-century Italian translation of a 19th-century adaptation of an 18th-century French opera?

Though the Met Medea will reappear in Toronto with Radvanovsky next year, European companies are doing better by Cherubini. In September, Madrid’s Teatro Real opened its season with Médée incorporating sung recitatives composed in 18th-century style by the late American conductor Alan Curtis. When Berlin first mounted Andrea Breth’s contemporary production of Médée conducted by Daniel Barenboim in 2018, it went back to the composer’s original including abridged spoken dialogue by Breth and Sergio Morabito.

For the opening night of its annual Barocktage festival on November 17, the Staatsoper went even further in its quest for authenticity and replaced its usual orchestra with the Akademie für Alte Musik, one of the world’s finest period instrument ensembles. Barenboim’s heavy conducting pointed Médée toward Romanticism and Beethoven, who was a great admirer of Cherubini, where Christophe Rousset’s vital, urgent leadership of the Akademie drew the opera back to its classical origins. The arresting thwack of old timpani, the pungent tang of natural horns and the mellow sweetness of wooden flutes made the music sound new. Rousset, with Rebeka and Stanislas de Barbeyrac, his Berlin Médée and Jason, achieved similarly revelatory results with Spontini’s La Vestale, another notable Callas vehicle, on a marvelous recording on the Palazetto Bru Zane label.

Absent from the Met since 2017, Latvian soprano Rebeka has recently established herself as one of the world’s most exciting singers—even founding Prima, her own recording label. Though Breth’s contemporary production loved spinning Martin Zehetgruber’s turntable set more than offering insights into its tortured heroine, Rebeka imbued her Médée with unrelenting intensity and stinging high notes. Though by its final act, Cherubini’s work devolved into a one-woman show, Rebeka held us spellbound as she wreaked havoc all around her. The audience greeted the soprano at her solo curtain call with volleys of raucous cheers unlike any I’ve heard in years.

Though announced as ailing, de Barbeyrac sang a ringing, sympathetic Jason who clearly remained in lust for Médée even as he embraced his doomed new lover. Maria Kokoreva as Dircé revealed a shining young soprano who delighted in her coloratura flourishes. Accompanied by an uncommonly plangent bassoon, Alisa Kolosova briefly seized the spotlight as Néris and flooded the theater with her richly expressive mezzo.

Two nights later, the Staatsoper reached back into the late 17th Century for another French Médée; a new production of Charpentier’s only opera is the latest in a twenty-year series of collaborations between American director Peter Sellars and mezzo-soprano Koženâ and her husband conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

Charpentier’s tragédie mis en musique conforms to a model perpetuated by the composer’s controlling predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully: five acts of roughly thirty minutes each, preceded by a prologue praising Louis XIV. Cherubini’s opera is based on Pierre Corneille’s play (which in turn is an adaptation of Euripides), while Charpentier’s more expansive libretto using those same sources was written by Thomas Corneille, Pierre’s brother. It fleshes out the tragedy with complex characterizations not only of Médée and Jason but also of Jason’s new lover here called Créuse, Oronte, her suitor and Créon, her father. These five confront each other moving from elegant recitatives into brief airs and then back into recitatives. Charpentier’s score, unlike that Italian opera seria of roughly the same time, also includes choral and dance music.

Unlike many “mainstream” conductors, Rattle has long been fascinated by the French baroque and conducted a previous Barocktage production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Arice with Koženâ as Phédre. His subtle conducting of the superb Freiburger Barockorchester reveled in the delicately vivid colors of Charpentier’s ravishing writing. During many recitatives, he would sit back and let the singers and continuo players collaborate on their own.

Rattle and Koženâ frequently work together but not always successfully. Their recent Der Rosenkavalier at the Met showed Rattle at the top of his game where his wife’s lovely rich mezzo lacked the easy high notes needed for Octavian. But in Charpentier’s opera, she rose to striking heights with a daringly complex portrait of a woman whose canny manipulations of all those around her still fail to win back her errant lover Jason. Koženâ was frighteningly determined as she decided to kill her children, as well as Créon and Créuse.

Reinoud Van Mechelen’s haute-contre has been disappointingly strained on several recent recordings but opposite Koženâ in Berlin, his voice rang out freely as he suavely embodied Jason’s arrogant masculinity. Still fascinated by his former lover, he eagerly pursued the simpler, gentler Créuse, a role sung with muted assurance by Carolyn Sampson. Gyula Orendt made much of both Oronte’s righteous anger and lovesick sadness while Créon’s descent into paralyzed madness was movingly conveyed by Luca Tittoto.

As usual, Sellars moved the action to the present day and into a spare, abstract setting designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry that initially featured two cells in which Médée and her children were imprisoned.

I was struck by the powerful simplicity of Sellars’s staging in which the inexorable march toward Medea’s horrible revenge was beautifully achieved. The only overt “Sellars-ism” occurred with the chorus sometimes performed with unison semaphore arm gestures. It was then a shock when Sellars was ferociously booed during the otherwise enthusiastic acclaim for Médée. Was the audience angry that he hadn’t supplied a more flamboyant staging? Or perhaps they found offensive his long, impassioned statements in the program book about the opera’s relevance to the continuing horrors visited upon female immigrants and their children. After reading his screed I was surprised his Charpentier staging wasn’t more overtly political.

The Koženâ-Rattle Médée travels to Hamburg and Barcelona in concert only, then William Christie and Les Arts Florissants return to Charpentier’s opera for the Paris Opéra and the Teatro Real next year. Those who can’t make it to Madrid for Véronique Gens’s Médée can hear it at home via a new recording on Alpha Classics arriving in January. Sonya Yoncheva, who starred in Berlin’s Cherubini Médée premiere, returns to the opera for a new production at La Scala in January—the first time it will be heard there in French.

Medea’s story continues after she flees from a decimated Corinth: she arrives in Athens and gets involved with Theseus, another unhappy story that naturally attracted opera composers. This fall, Rousset’s invaluable Lully operas recordings added a much-acclaimed Thésée featuring Karine Deshayes as Médée while next year’s Halle Handel Festival will present the composer’s early Teseo with the astonishing young male soprano Dennis Orellana in the tile role bedeviled by Fanny Lustaud’s Medea.

Happy Birthday, Maria, and thank you for all the Medeas!

Opera’s Murderin’ Medea slays Berlin Twice!