MedeaAribert Reimann - Medea

Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, 2010 | Michael Boder, Marco Arturo Marelli, Marlis Petersen, Michaela Selinger, Elisabeth Kulman, Michael Roider, Adrian Eröd, Max Emanuel Cencic | Arthaus

With very little to compare it to, the best way I can think of to describe Aribert Reimann’s Medea is that it can be very difficult to listen to. But, with it being a modern opera, you probably could have guessed as much anyway. As a world premiere, recorded in 2010 at the Vienna Staatsoper, it’s not even as if you can measure or contrast the performance against other recordings. What you can be sure of however, since the composer is still alive and taking an active part in its production – even down to writing the libretto himself, choosing the cast and writing specifically for their voices (as opera would have been traditionally done in the past) – is that this version of Medea is, for better or worse, as close as it is possible to be to Reimann’s intentions.

Whether it’s difficult or not is not what matters then, whether it’s not the most harmonious or beautiful sounds you’ve ever heard in an opera, nor whether it’s completely faithful to the composer’s intentions (though it is undoubtedly is all of the above), as much as whether it works as an opera on its own terms, that its story or message connects with the listener on some level and that its presentation is suited to the content. Medea is a familiar figure in the opera world – Cherubini’s version of the Greek tragedy and Maria Callas’ interpretation of it are almost legendary – a formidable female role on a par with Salome and Electra, and perhaps in that respect the name of Strauss can be invoked in the intensity and psychological acuity with which Reimann scores his version of the Medea legend.

The source is classical, of course, but Reimann draws from other sources than Euripides, bringing in the legend of the Golden Fleece and the Argonauts from Franz Grillparzer’s version of the stories. Reimann is known for his literary adaptations (particularly for his version of Lear), but as to what purpose or intent a modern opera looks back at classical subjects is difficult to say. Surprisingly, the composer seems to view Medea’s dilemma as being one of class anxiety and social climbing, both on her part from her background of Colchis - she is seen by herself and others as a barbarian - and on the part of Jason who, after suspicion has fallen on them for the death of Pelias, has fled Jolkos and sought sanctuary from King Creon, abandoning Medea in the process for the sophisticated life of Corinth and the hand of his rather more beautiful daughter Creusa.

Medea

Relating this conflict between old world and the new, between past and present – the set contrasting the bleak lunar landscape inhabited by Medea with the almost space-age nature of Corinth – the orchestration is accordingly made up of slow, discordant notes that are stretched and bent, a strangled string section, with woodwind trills, flatulent brass and deep percussive, almost industrial sounds. But it’s the voices that are the most expressive of the dilemma of the characters – high, emotional, intentionally strained, notes of anger, betrayal and despair that come close to a scream, yet – particularly in the case of Marlis Petersen as Medea – always remaining tuneful and musical. Medea consequently is not for those seeking beautiful melodies or harmonies, but rather a deeper expression of darker natures, uncomfortable alliances and fractured relationships in an intense retelling of the ancient Greek myth. On that level, Reimann’s Medea expresses everything the story ought to and as forcefully as it ought to be.

On Blu-ray, the opera looks and sounds magnificent (or indeed terrifying and deeply unsettling). The High Definition image is superbly clear, with strong contrasts and deep, well-defined colours. Both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks carry the full force of the music, the surround mix in particular deep and reverberating on the lower frequencies. Other than some notes on the composition and its performance in an accompanying booklet, there are no extra features on the Arthaus disc.