Great Singing in ENO’s Monstrously Camp Médée

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Charpentier, Médée: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera, Christian Curnyn (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 15.3.2013 (MB)

(sung in English, as Medea)


Médée – Sarah Connolly
Jason – Jeffrey Francis
Créon – Brindley Sherratt
Créuse – Katherine Manley
Oronte – Roderick Williams
Nérine – Rhian Lois
Cléone – Aolfe O’Sullivan
Arcas – Oliver Dunn
Corinthian/Jealousy – John McMunn
Italian Woman/Phantom II – Sophie Junker
Corinthian/Argive – Jeremy Budd
Cupid’s captives – Aolfe O’Sullivan, Sophie Junker, John McMunn
Sons of Médée and Jason – Ewan Guthrie, Harry Collins

Sir David McVicar (director)
Bunny Christie (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Lynne Page (choreography)
Jorn Andresen (chorus master)

Médée was Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s sole work written for the Académie Royale de Musique, the legacy of Lully’s operatic monopoly having died hard. Though not a popular hit, unlike, say, Alcide and Didon,the theme of Thomas Corneille’s libretto and Charpentier’s response thereto almost certainly proving too much, too ‘immoral’ for many Parisian sensibilities, the opera certainly proved a critical success upon its first performances in December 1693. Sébastien de Brossard, priest, music theorist, and composer, went so far as to describe it as ‘the one opera without exception in which one can learn those things most essential to good composition.’ Louis XIV, erstwhile avid Lulliste, was impressed, complimenting Charpentier personally upon the opera, whilst the king’s brother, Philippe, Duke of Orléans, ‘Monsieur’, and eldest son, Louis, the Grand Dauphin, both attended several performances. Though hailed by the critics on its first outing, Médée seems to have received no further performances at the Paris Opéra after 1694.

Does it deserve better this time? Yes, I have no doubt that, even if Rameau were unaware of it – the evidence seems tantalisingly unclear – that it is nevertheless not only a fine tragedy in its own right but, in retrospect, a crucial stepping stone on the teleological path that takes us not only to Rameau but to Gluck, and thence of course to Mozart, Berlioz, and Wagner. Alas, the cast was left to shoulder the burden on its own on this occasions, receiving scant support from either the pit or the staging. So whilst some excellent singing will doubtless have won a few welcome converts to the cause of tragédie lyrique, much of what was seen and a typically perverse conception of so-called ‘period style’ from the conductor – do conductor and director ever stop to consider how irreconcilable their stances are with each other? – will also have had many wonder what the fuss was about. My enthusiasm for the work was certainly not shared by a couple of friends to whom I later spoke; given the circumstances, I cannot say that I blame them.

The lion’s share of the responsibility should be lain at the door of Sir David McVicar. Taking up the recent tendencies in his stagings and extending them, at times to the point of absurdity, what we witnessed was a camp monstrosity, relocated to the 1940s for no apparent reason, save to permit an endless display of military uniforms, secretarial staff, and the dancing boys and girls within them. A point might well have been made about war and wartime exigency, but it was not; the updating seemed merely a matter of arbitrary ‘colour’. The nadir was perhaps reached with the arrival on stage of a large pink helicopter at the end of the second act, whilst Cupid darted around as a nightclub singer, an unfortunate reminiscence, even if unintentional, of the recent ENO Giulio Cesare.

Spectacle could perfectly well have been harnessed to dramatic effect, just as it might have been in late seventeenth-century France; however, it was not. I was put in mind of Wagner’s furious accusation in Opera and Drama against Meyerbeer; opera had degenerated into an ‘outrageously coloured, historico-romantic, devilish-religious, sanctimonious-lascivious, risqué-sacred, saucy-mysterious, sentimental-swindling, dramatic farrago’. The only moments of real drama emerged as if by default, the endless comings and goings on stage thinning out for a while, and Charpentier’s music just about emerging on its own terms. When that happened, however, it did not last for long, the brief moment of concentration upon Médée in the third act giving way to the bizarre appearance of hellish creatures who, in a non-mythological context, seemed more like writhing refugees from a second-rate episode of Dr Who than tragic figures of dread. The dance routines, however well executed, seemed tone-deaf to Charpentier’s music and quite unaware of the dramatic role that dance should play in this repertoire. Some time immersed in a seventeenth-century manual, if only to reject its prescriptions, might have been well spent.

If opera is held to be mere ‘entertainment’ – and not very entertaining entertainment at that – then there seems little case for public subsidy at all; if treated more seriously, more daringly, more provocatively, more shockingly, then it justifies itself handsomely as public discourse. German houses tend to understand that. Our London houses show some understanding of that from time to time; if only McVicar, undoubtedly a master of his craft in terms of having singers and actors do what he would, might shed the disturbing anti-intellectualism that has pervaded so much of his recent work and go beyond mere crowd-pleasing spectacle. Rightly or wrongly, the Prologue was omitted entirely.

Christian Curnyn’s conducting will doubtless be lauded in certain quarters. There was a far from unimpressive ebb and flow to it, the boundaries between air, chorus, and recitative properly brought into question, even dissolved. That undoubted achievement could readily have formed the basis of a fine performance. The great pity, however, just as in Giulio Cesare last autumn, was ‘period’ obsession: puritanical elimination of vibrato, refusal to allow the strings to sing, indeed to sound like orchestral sings as opposed to members of a village folk band, and what sounded very much to me – I could not see the pit – like employment of different, so-called ‘Baroque’ bows. There were moments, especially solo moments, when the ENO strings seemed to regain control, but they really should not have to play with both hands metaphorically tied behind their backs. If we are to have the rare, priceless advantage of modern strings, then for goodness sake let them be used. The blend with recorders was often problematic, as it always tends to be; modern flutes would have been a far better choice. Trumpets and a variety of drums alleviated the worst of the vibrato-less tyranny.

What of the singers? The Mercure galant enthused of Marie Le Rochois, a veteran of Lully’s 1686 Armide, to which score and libretto make reference and allusion on numerous occasions:

The passions are so vivid, particularly in Médée, that when this role was but declaimed it did not fail to make a great impression on the listeners. Mlle Rochois, one of the best singers in the world and who performs with warmth, finesse and intelligence, shone in this role and made the most of its beauties. All of Paris is enchanted…

How would Sarah Connolly match up? Very well indeed. There were moments earlier on when I wondered whether the role was quite suited to her voice, some of its richness lost on account of the range. However, from the point of her summoning the spirits onwards, such doubts were triumphantly banished. The part became Connolly’s, in dramatic and musical terms equally; there was no doubt about where one’s sympathies lay, however horrific her crime. Katherine Manley’s Créuse offered an excellent foil, necessarily a poor second to Médée, yet beautifully sung and acted, and capable of eliciting a degree or two of sympathy herself. Likewise Roderick Williams’s typically subtle, intelligent portrayal of Oronte, though as in every case, one could not help but wonder what he might have sounded like in French, Christopher Cowell’s English translation making a good stab at an impossible task. Brindley Sherratt’s Créon offered a well-judged blend of hubris and haplessness. Many of the singers in smaller roles shone too, for instance Rhian Lois and Aoife O’Sullivan as the confidantes of Médee and Créuse. Choral singing was excellent too. The sole fly in the ointment was Jeffrey Francis’s quite unheroic Jason. There may be a good case for deconstruction of heroism in this case, but there needs to be a degree of construction in the first place. The role sat unhelpfully for his voice, but stage presence was lacking too.

Three cheers are certainly due to ENO for this foray into pre-Ramellian tragédie lyrique. Would it not be a wonderful thing to hear some Lully next? Or indeed, to move forward to Gluck? Let such further explorations, however, be the province of a director who would take form and drama with but a modicum of greater seriousness.

Mark Berry