Medea in Corinto
Michael, Tsallagova; Vargas, Shrader, Miles; Chorus and Orchestra of Bayerische Staatsoper, Bolton. Production: Neuenfels. Arthaus Musik 101 578 (2 DVDs) or 108 030 (Blu-ray), 151 mins. (opera), 48 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Giovanni Simone Mayr (1763–1845) has gone into opera history principally as a teacher of Gaetano Donizetti. But the Bavarian-born composer, who relocated to Italy in his early twenties, helped introduce Beethoven's work there and penned nearly seventy operas, several of them genuinely successful in his lifetime. Mayr's most significant legacy is Medea in Corinto, which had its premiere at the San Carlo in Naples in 1813.
Medea in Corinto has a libretto based on Euripides and Corneille by the then twenty-five-year-old Felice Romani, who went on to collaborate with Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Meyerbeer. To the familiar rejection/revenge plot this enactment adds a second triangle: Creonte's daughter, here called Creusa, has for Giasone's sake broken her own engagement to the Athenian prince Egeo. The rivals are both tenors, anticipating the vocal pattern of Rossini's Ermione, which had its premiere in Naples six years later with some of the same singers. Medea in Corinto's creators included Isabella Colbran in the title role, Andrea Nozzari as her straying husband and Manuel García, senior, as Egeo.
The opera is not unknown to recording collectors. Newell Jenkins's 1969 outing on Vanguard Classics features an incredibly dramatic (up to high E-flat) performance by Marisa Galvany in the title role. There's a late-career Leyla Gencer scream-through from the San Carlo in 1977; Opera Rara (1993) offers the tamer Jane Eaglen, plus Yvonne Kenny and Bruce Ford. Recently, Oehms Classics released an exciting set from St. Gallen involving Elzbieta Szmytka and Lawrence Brownlee, a production that sparked interest in more revivals. The music is formally "classical" — not as inventive as Cherubini's Médée but nimbly scored and well worth hearing.
Bayerische Staatsoper welcomed back its native son's masterpiece with a typically powerful but violent-to-the-point-of-perversity staging by Hans Neuenfels. It begins with a horrifying scream, the first of many. Expect constant unscripted murders and other police-state trappings, too. One appreciates the need for revisionist views of repertory standards, but why do Central European theaters so often treat less known texts to the kind of long-since-clichéd ironic obfuscation (extending to annoying Brechtian titles) that Neuenfels deploys here? The semi-nude adolescent Cupid achieves homoerotic kitsch status.
It doesn't take long for Nadja Michael (Medea) to strip down to a black slip. She moves and acts with astonishing commitment and force. Even within her core repertory (which Romantic, proto-bel canto is assuredly not), Michael's career is hardly based on vocalism; to savor Mayr's writing, listeners should seek out Galvany or Szmytka. Ramón Vargas makes a committed, musical Giasone, but the scope and range — Nozzari was a "baritenor" — sometimes tax him. Elena Tsallagova offers a lovely Creusa. Alek Shrader embodies a handsome young Egeo — his bribes paid, inevitably, in U.S. dollars — singing with style and tonal beauty. Capable bass Alastair Miles — also Creonte for Opera Rara — gets to play him as an unhinged loon here.
Ivor Bolton conducts fluently, obtaining excellent playing from the Bayerische Staatsoper forces. A worthwhile "making of" feature includes interviews with the principals (except Shrader), Bolton, Neuenfels and backstage personnel — even the Souffleuse! The show's prima donna refers to herself in the third person as "die Michael." Perhaps the imperiousness comes with Medea's "scorched earth" attitude.
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