When going to see a new production at ENO, always expect the unexpected. In ENO’s recent history, that has certainly been true, though not always to its credit. Friday’s opening performance of Charpentier’s Medea was no exception to the rule; however, in this case, it was an opulent, stylish and fabulous (in more than one sense) production, complemented by a truly spectacular cast.
A tragédie mise en musique, Medea – or Médée, in its original language – is a complicated tale of love and woe: in order to calm the animosity of his people, Creon, the king of Corinth, tells the Colchon princess-sorceress Medea that she must be exiled for the duration of the impending war with Acastus, whose father Medea murdered so that Jason could obtain the Golden Fleece. She begrudgingly places her children in the care of Creusa, Creon’s daughter, who is betrothed to Prince Orontes but has declared her love for Jason (it’s not unrequited, by the way). Orontes promises Medea refuge if she can help speed his wedding to Creusa, but when she reveals to him her suspicion that her exile is merely a means of facilitating the marriage of Creusa and Jason, they mutually vow to support each other’s cause. Medea summons Jealousy and Vengeance when her suspicions are confirmed, and her vengeance knows no bounds – she summons beautiful women to drive Creon into a frenzy. She promises to stop causing suffering once Creusa has been married to Orontes, but it is too late, as Creon, in his frenzy, has already killed Orontes and then himself. The golden dress that Creusa is wearing has been poisoned by Medea, and she collapses in Jason’s arms. As Jason rushes to find a weapon with which to fight Medea, he is confronted by the image of their two young songs, dead. Declaring herself revenged, she departs, and the palace is left destroyed.
This dramatic story is matched by an equally dramatic production. Director Sir David McVicar’s crack team includes designer Bunny Christie, making her ENO debut. She has transposed this Baroque opera to the 1940s, with a Baroque palace (clever...) requisitioned as a military planning HQ. For once, this “update” works quite well, the tri-service element reflecting the characters’ various causes: Creon is an Army General; Jason a Navy Captain; and Orontes a dashing airman). Costume-wise, it is a mixture of sexed-up military and decadent glitz and glamour. Charpentier’s opera contains plenty of interludes, which are here accompanied by a troupe of dancers. It is not all twee Baroque dancing, though – Lynne Page’s choreography is more modern than that. Particularly effective is the choreography when Medea summons the spirits of Jealousy and Vengeance, who writhe and wriggle and grasp their way across the floor. On the whole, it captures the prevailing mood at various stages. It is also funny, sometimes, at least to begin with: during the first interlude, the gung-ho Navy boys pull off a quasi-gymnastic routine, with a bit of Cockney slapstick thrown in for good measure. Later on, this high-campery becomes just slightly too detached from the direction of the opera, with burlesque dancers in red, sequinned hotpants taking the stage, and a large, red, glittery (no kidding!) aeroplane wheeled in to boot: more West End than opera house.
The A-list cast is, as one would hope, A-list magnificent. As Medea, Sarah Connolly is at her vocal and dramatic best, with a powerful and technically superb voice that conveys Medea’s rage and anguish – she stands out even amongst a stellar cast. Making his ENO debut, the US tenor Jeffrey Francis (Jason) noticeably struggled at the top end of his range in this performance, but otherwise produced a sweet and bright tone. Katherine Manley’s blonde bombshell of a Creusa produces a vibrant tone, and her duet with Jason, as she is dying in his arms, is moving indeed. Meanwhile, Brindley Sherratt’s warm bass in the role of Creon, and the loveable Roderick Williams’ suave baritone as Orontes deserve praise, as does the up-and-coming Rhian Lois in the role of Nerina, Medea’s confidante. Medea is demanding on the chorus too; it is unflappable both on- and off-stage, and the singers seem to relish the costume and role changes demanded of them. All this is held together by conductor and early music specialist Christian Curnyn, whose tempi ensure that the audience’s interest in a French Baroque opera of some three hours’ duration (not including intervals) is maintained.
ENO’s Medea is, by and large, an outstanding production, with a wonderful cast and some real attention to detail on the backstage and technical side of things. Paule Constable’s lighting should not go unmentioned – with an elaborate set and glossy black flooring, there are some moments of incredulity as light trick follows light trick. Not everything in the production will be to everyone’s tastes (when is it ever?), but it was nevertheless enjoyable – and it would still have been were it for the singing alone.
Following the ‘knockout success’ (whatsonstage.com) of Rameau’s Castor and Pollux, ENO continues its pioneering exploration of French baroque operatic masterpieces with the first-ever UK/London staging of Charpentier’s dramatic full-scale opera.
Reworking one of the most enduringly disturbing of all the Greek myths – that of a mother who murders her own children – Charpentier’s thrillingly orchestrated score boasts a harmonic daring and psychological complexity unparalleled in its day.
The exemplary cast includes internationally acclaimed British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly in the title role, US tenor Jeffrey Francis making his ENO debut as Jason and exceptional baritone Roderick Williams as Orontes. Medea is conducted by period specialist Christian Curnyn, whose recent handling of Castor and Pollux was hailed as ‘revelatory’ (The Daily Telegraph) and ‘ravishingly done’ (The Guardian).
London ColiseumSt. Martin's Lane
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2N 4ES
Duration: 3h 10m
Jeffrey Francis as Jason, Katherine Manley as Creusa © ENO (English National Opera)
Jeffrey Francis as Jason © ENO (English National Opera)
Sarah Connolly as Medea (at rear) © ENO (English National Opera)