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.
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
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.