There are three strands to ENO’s new production of Charpentier’s Medea: firstly the perfectly-constructed Greek legend of sorcery and vengeance; then the traditions of 17th Century French opera, excessively ornamented and de-railing the plot with a massive masque sequence mid-way through; and finally, director David McVicar’s transportation of the work into the recent past, with a 1940s setting familiar from many a war film. It’s slow progress but during the course of the evening these disparate and seemingly irreconcilable elements come together to produce an entirely satisfying whole.
Euripides’s Medea is all elemental passion while McVicar gives us urbane sophistication, with emotion for the most part kept at arm's length as though with tongs. But then so, musically and dramatically, does Charpentier, who, with his librettist Thomas Corneille (brother of le Grand Corneille) builds layers of embellishment over the basic story, including (briefly) giving centre-stage to Jason’s bit on the side and inventing a new character as a love rival in a wholly un-needed plotline. With five acts and a running time of three and a half hours, it’s maybe as well that the work’s prologue is cut.
These are not the only additions to muddy an otherwise tautly plotted drama, with Cupid descending in Act Two for an extended dance extravaganza (arriving in this realisation in a spangly Mustang fighter plane that ups the camp factor to a level only just the right side of acceptable). Lynne Page’s musical theatre choreography, with prancing sailors and chorus girls, is incongruous, wittily inventive and thoroughly enjoyable.
Once we get past the first interval, there are plenty of balletic interludes still to come but the campery is left behind and the focus of the drama tightens and begins to work towards its inevitable tragedy.
One can imagine Callas stomping around and straining every fibre as Medea (albeit Cherubini's) but Sarah Connolly’s business-suited interpretation is still and steely, gradually ratcheting up the tension, as injustice at her husband’s infidelity eats at her soul and unthinkable violence becomes her only resort. She’s supported by a terrific cast. Jeffrey Francis is an appropriately mature Jason (another daddy figure for Katherine Manley’s blonde bombshell Creusa). Manley is full of sweetness and beauty while Roderick Williams’s cocky but blooming Orontes overdoes the swaggering a tad. Creon is the ever-dependable Brindley Sherratt.
Director and production team (sets Bunny Christie, lighting Paul Constable) are on top form. There are a number of McVicar idiosyncracies, not least a strong streak of incest in Creon and Creusa’s relationship. Hinted at early on, it later develops into a full-blown fantasy of distasteful lust. Seduced by multiple images of his daughter, Creon is reduced to humiliation and madness and, while we see Creusa burn to a crisp under Medea’s vengeful magic, it is Creon who provides the behind-the-scenes climactic trauma. His demise is delivered with chilling effect by the chorus of stricken Corinthians.
Charpentier’s score is gorgeous, conducted with characteristic precision and vigour by Christian Curnyn, and along with a drama that, after a shaky start, grips like a vice, makes this rare foray into French baroque an unmissable treat.
- Simon Thomas