English National Opera – Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea [Sarah Connolly; directed by David McVicar; conducted by Christian Curnyn]

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Médée [Medea] – Opera in five acts to a libretto by Thomas Corneille [performed based on an edition by Clifford Bartlett; sung in the English translation by Christopher Cowell, with English surtitles]

Medea – Sarah Connolly
Jason – Jeffrey Francis
Creon – Brindley Sherratt
Creusa / Phantom I – Katherine Manley
Orontes – Roderick Williams
Nerina – Rhian Lois
Cleonis / Cupid – Aoife O’Sullivan
Arcas / Vengeance – Oliver Dunn
Corinthian /Jealousy – John McMunn
Italian Woman / Phantom II – Sophie Junker
Corinthian / Argive – Jeremy Budd
Medea and Jason’s sons – Ewan Guthrie and Harry Collins

Chorus & Orchestra of English National OperaChristian Curnyn

Sir David McVicar – Director
Bunny Christie – Designer
Paule Constable – Lighting Designer
Lynne Page – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 15 February, 2013
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Medea, English National Opera, February 2013. Photograph: Clive BardaWe should uncross a few wires first. This Médée is not Cherubini’s opéra comique of that name from 1797 but a tragédie mise en musique written a century earlier by Charpentier. That’s Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), master of the French Baroque and composer of the glorious Messe de minuit, as opposed to his later namesake Gustave (1860-1956) who gave us the opera Louise. Charpentier (Marc-Antoine, that is) set his Médée to a libretto by Corneille, who was not the famed tragedian Pierre but his lesser-known younger brother Thomas. Clear? Good.

For this rare production of a neglected gem of the French Baroque – English National Opera claims this to be its UK stage première – a Prologue in praise of King Louis XIV has been jettisoned so that after a brief prelude à la Eurovision (television’s stateliest theme is taken from Charpentier’s Te Deum) we are plunged straight into the opera’s complex back-story and intrigue. A ton of recitative-heavy exposition weighs down the opening Act, its essence the revelation that Medea’s lover Jason has had his head turned by the beautiful Creusa and our heroine is not happy about it. It says much for the singers and players – and for David McVicar’s arresting staging – that interest never flags during all the to-ing and fro-ing, the various conversations with confidants and one seemingly innocuous exchange over a dress.

Jeffrey Francis as Jason & Katherine Manley as Creusa (Medea, English National Opera, February 2013). Photograph: Clive BardaMcVicar sets the opera in the military nerve-centre of an unspecified country, mid-twentieth-century, where a Brideshead of a stately home has been commandeered for operational purposes. A bewildering array of uniforms come and go: Creusa’s father, Creon, is dressed as General De Gaulle in exile while the doomed Orontes, Creusa’s true intended, swaggers on like Biggles. Only when half-a-dozen grinning officers launch into one of Lynne Page’s tumbling, high-camp dance routines does the penny drop: we are in dream territory, and here we will stay for the remainder of a hugely entertaining evening. Dreams can veer from the real to the fantastical in the rapid movement of an eye, so when a life-sized, glitter-encrusted fighter plane taxis in though the double doors of designer Bunny Christie’s war room it seems the most natural thing in the world.

Sarah Connolly as Medea (Medea, English National Opera, February 2013). Photograph: Clive BardaChristian Curnyn coaxed rich yet unfamiliar sounds from an ENO Orchestra augmented by several high-profile Baroque specialists. It had been hard to pinpoint exactly what was unusual about the orchestration until the conductor took to Twitter and explained that Charpentier specified the use of sourdines (mutes) in practically all of the opera’s string writing. Such attention to performance-detail epitomises Curnyn’s affection for a score that hurtles forward, pell-mell and plot to the fore, with all the momentum of a modern opera. Charpentier rarely stops for an aria unless it explores a character’s psychology, which explains why most of the reflective music falls to Medea until the point where madness claims her. The complementary role of the chorus in all this is significant: it provides a down-to-earth counterweight of muscle and energy to the protagonists’ unlikely flights of fancy, a responsibility that the members of the ENO Chorus assumed with their customary flair.

Sarah Connolly as Medea (Medea, English National Opera, February 2013). Photograph: Clive BardaIn the title role Sarah Connolly was on fire (though in her case only figuratively, unlike the unfortunate Creusa in that smokin’ hot dress). Over the course of a gripping staging the formidable mezzo-soprano descended from sophisticated power-dresser to bug-eyed monster, and she did so with utter conviction each step of the way towards her final coup de théâtre. Her singing was not only beautiful it was also alive to every nuance both in the score and in Christopher Cowell’s excellent translation. “Vengeance must learn to wear a mask” declares Medea early on – which is exactly what Connolly did until the moment when, blade in hand, she ripped the mask away and all Hades broke loose.

Katherine Manley was radiant as the unwitting object of Medea’s vengeful plans. One of the most exciting young sopranos around, Manley wore her considerable experience of Baroque performance as lightly as her accursed frock and created a character who was both alive and alluring until the fateful wardrobe malfunction struck her down. Jason, as portrayed by the American tenor Jeffrey Francis, is a seasoned general who has hit a mid-life crisis and is rather pathetically chasing after a younger woman. Francis’s steely timbre helped make his character appropriately unsympathetic – no doubt this Jason regales anyone who’ll listen with stale tales of that golden fleece – and he presented an effectively uptight contrast to the warmth of Roderick Williams’s gung-ho Orontes and to the ever-resonant bass of Brindley Sherratt, who oozed vocal velvet as Creon, King of Corinth.

The tale of Medea has caught David McVicar’s imagination on the wing. There is joyousness to his production that belies the story’s gloom and slaughter; but then this is Charpentier, not Euripides, and a cheery dance is never far away. The newly-ennobled director realises that you can’t take the comédie-ballet out of the composer and fully embraces the music’s unpredictability and otherness. It’s a pragmatic approach that locates within the opera’s apparent chaos sensibilities from a bygone age that are not only musical but also keenly dramatic, and in bringing these to life he raises the audience to heights of elation.

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