English National Opera, 6 March 2013
Audio-only recording of Act 3, under Emmanuelle Haïm. From youtube.
A triumph. Despite some jarring directorial campness, this long overdue UK premiere confirms the work as one of the greatest revenge dramas.
Seventeenth-century operas tend to be neglected, but even so, I was surprised to discover this was the first staged production of this work in the UK, as it usually described as the greatest French opera of the period.
Perhaps I am damning with faint praise, for the alternatives – the operas of Lully – are almost completely inert, as if drama were too coarse an idea to impose on music, or, more likely, due to an excessively ceremonial idea of what drama set entirely to music should be about.
It is good to report that this work is both stageable and a dramatic success, perhaps a masterpiece.
It is not perfect. The first two of its five acts contain the decorous music common to Lully, accurately described as bland in the programme. The prologue has been cut, which is a blessing, and it might have been sensible to cut more (even all) of the dance numbers. The creative team’s solution to these tedious interludes was mixed – a camp ballet is jarringly inappropriate, though I thought the choreography was inventive.
The human background to Medee’s plight is essential for creating sympathy for her during the next three acts of her blood-curdling revenge, so I can’t excessively criticise Charpentier or his librettist Corneille (Thomas, not Pierre) for boring us in the first act.
The last three acts, and especially the hinge third act, are intensely dramatic, but also, perhaps even moreso, intensely theatrical. I don’t recall experiencing the same impact from recordings of this piece.
This is a drama where the words and actions matter most, and the music enhances these words at key moments. Even the dance numbers can be integrated effectively, as here (from Act 3 onwards), if taken as expressions both of the title character’s magic and her desperate condition.
This brings me to the meaning of the drama, less urgent than its dramatic stageworthiness, but still important.
Medee only appears to take control of the situation. In fact, there is a terrible irony that with all the power she can employ in vengeance, she is unable to prevent the need for that vengeance. Surely this is how we should interpret her magic – as the purely destructive power of revenge.
Once unleashed, her revenge is outside of her control: she becomes its instrument. This is clear from Creon’s murder of Orontes at precisely the point when Creusa has submitted to Medee’s demand to marry him.
Given the potency of the central character, I’m astonished this piece isn’t in the UK repertoire, much less that it is unstaged. Sarah Connolly dominates the stage whenever she is present, singing both lyrically and dramatically, and acting up a storm.
She is helped by David McVicar’s direction. He has a lot of useful experience in keeping the acting plausible even during lengthy baroque irrelevances. The setting is the 1940s during the world war, though I don’t see it sheds any new light on this story. A near-modern setting is now the standard for mythic dramas, which is a bit odd, though inoffensive.
The rest of the cast is excellent, with the important exception of Jeffrey Francis’ Jason, who acts and sings a sort of blustering heroism, but doesn’t provide a reason for why he should be so loved, as he boastfully reflects in an early scene.