French baroque at its best! 5 acts without ONE single aria! If this sounds like a nightmare to you, believe me, you haven’t heard Charpentier. It’s not a continuous recitativo either, like Cavalli, it’s more singing in a spoken-declamatory style, but with always the feeling of a melody carrying the story forward. And what a story! Medea is one of the greatest stories humanity came up with, and opera the perfect setting for it: the drama really comes alive, under the magnificent baton of William Christie.
The opera starts with Jason and Medea already in Corinth, where they have fled after stealing the golden fleece from Medea’s father, the king of Colchis, and they already have two children. Jason is tired of Medea, who he seduced probably just to get the golden fleece, and he’s in love with Glauce, the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth. The people in Corinth hate Medea, they are afraid of her sorceries, and the king would be very happy to get rid of her and have Jason marry his daughter. Medea finds out about the betrayal, and her vengeance is terrifying: she gives Glauce a poisoned robe which kills her (or burns her alive, according to Euripides). She drives Creon crazy with her magical arts and he kills himself. And finally, to inflict the utmost suffering to Jason, she kills their two children. After all this, she does not get punished, but rather whisked away on the chariot of the Sun-god and lives happily ever after.
The orchestra was La Scintilla, beefed up with a few key musicians from Christie’s own Les arts florissant, namely, the continuo section: 2 theorbos, a viola da gamba, a harpsicord, a cello and a double-bass. The continuo was unbelievable. Given the character of the music, they played nonstop, and were absolutely great. The best parts of the music, the most enjoyable, are the big bombastic choruses. Charpentier did know how to use the timpani.
Medea was Stephanie d’Oustrac, who I have already heard in Paris, in Theodora, by Handel. Her voice is wonderful, and extremely fitting for this kind of music. Her mezzo is warm and round, very powerful in the center, with a lot of overtones in the middle registers, and still very good high notes. Her interpretation was very heartfelt and convincing, her love for Jason sweet and unyielding, her determination in her vengeance terrifying. The moment when she decides to kill her children was extremely reminiscent of Norma’s Dormono entrambi, the same feelings, the same words, almost.
The production was a disaster. Or rather, as I always say, it wasn’t horrible, because it did not interfere with the music. The singers were always able to deliver unhindered, the stage had a nice strong wall not too far behind the singers, projecting the sound forward, and the noise on stage was not excessive. Having said this, it was really ugly, and incomprehensible to me. The idea, as far as I could tell, was that Medea is a foreigner, in every sense of the word. She has tribal tattoos, walks barefoot, and has a mane of dreadlocks. Everybody else is dressed in posh clothes (60s is my guess), and this is a good way to visualize her “otherness”, to explain the hatred she inspires in the people of Corinth, but also to explain Jason’s betrayal. d’Oustrac is a beautiful young woman, so the usual take “Jason leaves her for a younger model” doesn’t really work here. So, the take is more “Jason leaves a primitive savage for a posh princess”. This part works very well. \
What does not work, in my opinion, is turning Jason’s warriors into cricket players, for example. Also, the evil spirits conjured by Medea for her vengeance are parodies of Santeria figures, which could even work, but the parody is almost funny, and there is nothing funny in the music there. So very often I closed my eyes, to enjoy the music, and I did enjoy it a lot.
Reinoud Van Mechelen was Jason. His tenor has the correct color and his singing technique is very good. He could improve his style, I felt a lack of French sophistication in his singing. He was a dreadful actor, but again, I’m not sure it’s all his fault, it may be the director. His character came out as an idiotic teenager, which is not completely wrong, of course, but he was constantly overacting, it was boring.
Nahuel Di Pierro, as Creon, the king of Corinth, was a much more convincing actor. You could still see the awful direction, scenes with a “funny” twist, when there was nothing funny, but he handled it much better. His folly, at the end of the opera, was almost realistic. His voice was also very good!
Glauce, the princess Jason wants to marry, was Mélissa Petit, who is a light soprano, enjoyable, but not a voice to write home about. She was very moving in her death scene, emotional and sweet.
Special mention for the tenor Spencer Lang, who is a real haute-contre and sang extremely well a number of minor characters.
French baroque rules!