Medea


MedeaGiovanni Simone Mayr - Medea in Corinto

Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Hans Neuenfels, Nadja Michael, Ramón Vargas, Alastair Miles, Alek Shrader, Elena Tsallagova, Kenneth Robertson, Francesco Petrozzi, Laura Nicorescu | Arthaus

The Medea myth has provided great material for opera composers over the years, and it’s not difficult to see why. It has all the ingredients – as it’s played here in this version – for the operatic favourite, the ‘melodramma tragico’. A Greek mythological tale of royal kingdoms at war, marriage alliances and a sorceress who seeks to disrupt it all, it’s a storyline nonetheless that can be accessible to a modern audience, dealing with very real human emotions. There’s a joyous wedding – between Creusa and Jason – but a psycho ex-wife, Medea, who still represents a threat to the union, and a struggle over custody of the kids from her and Jason’s previous marriage, which he wants annulled based on the fact that the witch cast a spell over him. Don’t they all. And would you believe it, the ex turns up at the wedding and causes a bit of a scene. Nightmare.

There are many other facets to this storyline, from the classical mythological view of the relationship between humans and the gods to the character-driven human drama full of emotional turmoil and conflicts between duty and desire. It’s a subject consequently that has been covered many times in opera over the centuries, and is still returned to even by modern composers, with Aribert Reimann’s 2010 Medea viewing Jason’s entering into prestigious marriage to Creusa as an act of social climbing, leaving behind his past for an alliance with Corinth. For the director of this production of Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto, Hans Neuenfels, the story is about people living in fear and acting out of fear. You might not get that quite so much from the original score and libretto, but that at least is the spin put on this production of a rarely performed opera recorded in 2010 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Medea

In Medea in Corinto, the forthcoming union between Creusa and Jason (Giasone in Italian) is a promise to the end of the long wars that have devastated the nation and an end to living in fear. But right from the beginning, Neuenfel’s radical staging puts forward a view that Corinth – perhaps on account of having to deal with the constant threat of violence – has become a corrupt and violent police state, with a cruel and sadistic king, Creon/Creonte. There are threats to the marriage also not only from Medea, who has turned up demanding an audience with Giasone, but – in this version – from Aegeus/Egeo, who is still engaged to Creusa and has brought his own personal army with him to push forward his claim to the throne.

Much of this interpretation of the myth is, it has to be said, suggested by the staging rather more than anything in the score or the libretto. That kind of practice can often be a valid exercise of theatrical interpretation, but it’s perhaps a little more dubious here since it seems to be acting in a way that is contrary to the intent of the piece, the kind of director-imposed regietheater view that is despised by a certain (intransigent) section of the opera-viewing public. In the opening scenes then, while Creon is talking about peace, he and his troops are at the same time engaged in the abuse, torture and execution of ordinary citizens in a sadistic manner that clearly evokes Pasolini’s Salò (thankfully without its worst excesses). In other scenes, either the director doesn’t trust the singing to be strong enough or the score to be deep or interesting enough, and includes silent background figures of Hymen and Amor, who play out mimes in the background, as well as solo musicians to highlight and contrast the actions with the words of the libretto.

Whether it’s true to Mayr’s vision of the Medea myth, this kind of reworking of the material is of course valid in the context of the nature of the opera’s theme of shifting political agendas, where the stated aims of those in power is often contrary to their actions and their actual intent. More than that however, without a little bit of subversion to enliven it, Medea in Corinto might otherwise be a very dull opera indeed. Musically, the studied classicism of Mayr’s arrangements – stately Mozart-like opera seria without the recitative and singing that is heading towards bel canto – is quite beautiful, but can come across as rather bland, certainly when compared to Cherubini’s fiery version, which is an evident model here. Although the qualities of his composition here are debatable, or at least unfashionable as far as modern opera tastes go, the composer now almost forgotten in the history of opera, Mayr could once count both Bellini and Donizetti as pupils, and Medea in Corinto is consequently not without a considerable amount of interest.

Medea

If the Bayerische Staatsoper production then is somewhat radical, it at least tries to make the classical themes relevant to a modern audience, the three-level stage reflecting the three periods through which the audience view this opera – a modern view of Mayr’s period interpretation of classical antiquity. The motivations and intentions can however be a bit dubious in some other respects – Medea first appearing in a witch-doctor costume, Aegeus bizarrely killing his own men in the second act – but it certainly holds the attention better than a more straightforward traditional production might. The production however also benefits here from some fine singing, Nadja Michael in particular delivering a fabulous rich deep almost mezzo performance as Medea – here as elsewhere a real showpiece role – but the singing all round is of a very high quality. A slimmed-down Ramón Vargas is notable as Giasone, but the role requires a deeper near-baritone range in some parts that the Mexican tenor can’t reach with sufficient force. Unfashionable it may be, but if you are looking to study the often fascinating intricacies and colour of the score, it’s superbly delivered by the Bayerisches Staatsorcheter under Ivor Bolton.

Enjoyment of this rare opera is assured however by the High Definition quality of the Arthaus Blu-ray release. The image quality is flawless, the filming making use of frequent close-ups, but also allowing the (sometimes distracting) background drama to be followed. The audio tracks are LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.0, both of which are simply outstanding with remarkable clarity and bass presence, and only a little reverb of stage ambience on occasion from the microphone placements. Extra features include a 30-minute Making of – which is made up entirely of interviews with the cast and production team – and a very informative 16-minute Interview with the president of the Simone Mayr institute.

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.

MedeaLuigi Cherubini - Medea

Sassari Italy, 2004 | Orchestra dell’Ente Concerti, Eric Hull, Giuseppe Sollazzo, Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni, Carlo Cigni, Elisabetta Scano, Cesare Ruta, Chiara Chialli | Kikko Classic

Adaptations of classical Greek mythology are common in opera, particularly Baroque and opera seria, and it’s perhaps for this reason that opera traditionally deals with highly dramatic subjects revolving around the twin passions of love and revenge. With perhaps the exception of Carmen, they don’t come much more impassioned than Luigi Cherubini’s version of the Euripides drama Medea.

More than the actual drama - it’s not a particularly complicated storyline and not a great deal happens - much of the passion is embodied within the character of Medea herself, the sorceress arriving at Colchis to stop the marriage of Jason to Glauce. Turning up on their wedding day, Medea threatens all manner of vengeance should Jason break the vows he has made, under enchantment, to her. Made famous by Maria Callas, which probably accounts for it being the only real Cherubini opera in repertoire, Medea is a role that calls out for a big performance and it does indeed get that here in the figure of Denia Mazzola Gavazzeni.

Recorded in Sassari in 2004 in the revised Italian version of the opera, this is a reasonably good production, traditionally staged, costumed and performed - a solid production that suits the opera and plays to its strengths. The orchestration and singing are both fine, but unfortunately neither are really shown to their best in the rather poor sound reproduction on this DVD release from Kikko Classic in Italy. A live recording, presumably made for television, the sound is Dolby Digital 2.0, but I’m not even sure it’s in stereo, or if it is, there’s not much L-R separation. It might as well be mono, and the mixing accordingly isn’t great, the orchestra mostly drowning out the singing.

The video quality is also lacking. In 4:3, it looks like a TV video master, and is certainly not shot in HD. Grain and blockiness can be seen in the dark backgrounds, there is faint discolouration with exposure varying between cameras. There are even one or two buzz glitches that momentarily affect both image and sound. The biggest problem with the filming is the editing, which makes use of different performances from different nights often within the same scene, the frequent intercutting leading to obvious continuity issues. Even more problematically, this causes the lip-movements to rarely match the singing or the performance.

Most of these issues are relatively minor and wouldn’t individually spoil the enjoyment of what is a fine opera and a good performance of it, but cumulatively, they can be quite niggling and distracting.