English National Opera
Connolly as Medea in the ENO debut of Charpentier's opera, staged by McVicar
© Clive Barda 2013
Paris is just 213 miles from London as the crow flies, but it has taken 320 years for Médée, Marc-Antoine Charpentier's tragédie mise en musique, to achieve a U.K. staging — though, to be fair, it lasted only ten performances in its initial run at the Académie Royale de Musique in 1693, and little was subsequently heard of it even in France until the late twentieth century. Yet this sole work written for the Paris Opera (as opposed to private performance in schools or patrons' palaces) by an important — if regularly professionally frustrated — rival to Lully is now regarded as one of the masterpieces of the French Baroque, an estimate that was entirely vindicated when David McVicar staged it for English National Opera as Medea (seen Feb. 20). More intricate and more wide-ranging both harmonically and orchestrally than Lully's works, Charpentier's magnum opus is certainly an outstanding representative of its period and genre.
ENO entered this particular repertoire field for the first time in 2011, with Barrie Kosky's production of Rameau's Castor et Pollux — a far more radical treatment than McVicar's of Médée. He and Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn (who also conducted Castor) did, however, drop the opera's allegorical prologue — which, in the manner of the age, offers fulsome praise to Louis XIV. In Bunny Christie's lavish designs, the remaining five acts took place in a palatial room apparently requisitioned by Allied High Command during the liberation of France, with U.S. and U.K. uniforms to the fore: Creon, king of Corinth, wore the uniform of an American general; Orontes, prince of Argos, that of a Royal Air Force squadron leader. With a sequence of dance-heavy divertissements already written into the form — one at the end of each of the first four acts — the arrival at one point through the room's doors of a fighter aircraft, colored pink and glittery and replete with capering On the Town-like sailors, achieved an apogee of McVicarian camp. While the West-End period-musical feel of Lynne Page's choreography sometimes registered as over-busy and generally a bit de trop, it certainly added to the entertainment quotient in a staging that in other respects paralleled the piece by becoming ever darker; with McVicar, you always get a show, whatever the context.
Sarah Connolly sang the vast central role of Medea, her spirited declamation of Christopher Cowell's new translation of Thomas Corneille's text and her expert shaping of Charpentier's emotionally laden set-pieces providing the twin foundations for a fully three-dimensional portrayal; her ample mezzo, capable of a wide range of expression and nuance, made her nearly ideal for this marathon tragedienne assignment. As Medea's rival Creusa, Katherine Manley deployed a delicate, pinpoint-precise soprano to outline the contrasting appeal of the juvenile-lead Corinthian princess, who eventually perished horribly as her glamorous ball-gown (Medea's poisoned gift) exuded smoke while its wearer expired in pain-wracked song. Jeffrey Francis made a belated ENO debut as the duplicitous Jason, his lithe, pliant tenor negotiating the expressive niceties of the ornate French Baroque style with considerable expertise. Representing the forces of Corinthian law and order with his noble bass, Brindley Sherratt's Creon brought strong vocal and physical presence to an ambiguously pragmatic character. Managing the amalgamation of text and notes with conspicuous finesse was baritone Roderick Williams as Orontes, Jason's rival for Creusa's affections. Supplying Connolly's sorceress with confidential and tonally impeccable support was Welsh soprano Rhian Lois as Nerine; Irish soprano Aoife O'Sullivan fulfilled her parallel role to Creusa equally commendably, also tripling up in divertissements as Cupid and a Captive. Curnyn's conducting was correct, though he could have done more to highlight the frequently extraordinary gestures of Charpentier's writing. A contingent of regular ENO players was augmented (notably in the continuo) by period specialists, and both orchestra and chorus worked hard to realize the relatively unfamiliar and even recondite idiom — and with tangible success.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.