William Christie awakens a Sleeping Beauty: Medea in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Charpentier, Medea: Soloists and Chorus of Zurich Opera, Orchestra La Scintilla, Members of Les arts florissants / William Christie (conductor), Zurich Opera 22.1.2017. (JR)


Médée – Stéphanie D’Oustrac
Jason – Reinoud Van Mechelen
Créan – Nahuel Di Pierro
Créuse – Mélissa Petit
Oronte – Ivan Thirion
L’Amour – Florie Valiquette
Nérine – Carmen Seibel
Arcas – Spencer Lang
Citizen of Argos – Roberto Lorenzi
An Italian – Sandrine Droin
First Corinthian – Nicholas Scott
Cleone – Gemma Ni Bhriain
Second Phantom – Francisca Montiel

Cembalo – Paolo Zanzu
Lute –  Brian Feehan & Juan Sebastian Lima
Cello – Claudius Herrmann
Viola da Gamba – Martin Zeller
Violin – Dieter Lange

Director – Andreas Homoki
Set – Hartmut Meyer
Costumes – Mechthild Seipel
Lighting – Franck Evin
Choreography advice – Katrin Kolo
Chorus master – Jürg Hämmerli
Dramaturgy – Werner Hintze & Fabio Dietsche

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Charpentier’s 1693 opera Médée, or Medea in English. (Not to be confused with Cherubini’s opera of the same name, championed by Maria Callas). The Roman dramatist Seneca portrayed Medea as a monstrously demonic sorceress who, in revenge for Jason’s infidelity, murders their own children. Jason – as every schoolboy knows – is leader of the Argonauts who goes in search of the Golden Fleece. Charpentier’s title character Medea is painted more sympathetically, but ultimately the opera must lead to the atrocity. Charpentier’s librettist Thomas Corneille portrayed Medea as a tragic heroine who only gradually grasps the perfidy of Jason’s betrayal and sees herself as a captive of her hopeless situation.

French musical tragedy emerging in the late 1600s took the form of a declamatory musical style close to the spoken word; however it was then the task of the musical theatre to portray the supernatural, so ample material is given to the Director to let loose his or her creativity – Homoki seizes these elements with relish.

William Christie knows this opera like no other, and is of course a master of the French baroque; he has revived this work after 300 years of slumber. Director and Zurich Opera Intendant Andreas Homoki have worked together before, in Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

The set by Hartmut Meyer was basic, two-tiered and modern, allowing a fairly blank canvas against which to display some very gaudy costumes, courtesy of Mechthild Seipel. The chorus first appears as a cricket team, complete with pads, white woolly sweaters, shoes and caps – I never knew the game had its beginnings in ancient Greece, rather than in the Weald of Sussex. Later, in the scene where Medea casts her spell (she intends to make a dress worn by her rival burst into flames), ghouls wearing hats in the form of skulls appear (the “black daughters of Styx leaving their lugubrious chasms”) along with two Black and White minstrels.  Some pantomime dames, entering and exiting on a huge wooden rat run, also add to the show.

Homoki adds humour, as is his wont, in the shape of an almost slapstick Oronte and some Dads Army Greek police. The production extracted some booing from the amphitheatre and muted applause from the rest of the house.

Thankfully, the singing was of a high order. Pride of place goes to Stéphanie d’Oustrac, a protégé of Christie’s, who has sung this role before some ten years ago and is on the Harmonia Mundi DVD. Her performance is simply splendid, expressive, beguiling and chilling. Her diction and phrasing could not be bettered, her strong voice suited to the role. Reinoud van Mechelen, as Jason, was less spectacular but did no damage, Mélissa Petit as Créuse looks the part but the voice lacks personality. A number of singers from the Zurich International Opera Studio took the minor roles, of which there are many; I was particularly taken by statuesque Carmen Seibel as Nérine, who has a voice which has promise, and delightful Florie Valiquette as Cupid (Love) as much for her movement as her singing.

Tuneful the score is not; most of the musical entertainment is in the orchestral interludes allowing the full panoply of baroque instruments to show off their particular sound (here embellished by some members from Les Arts Florissants, backing up the Orchestra La Scintilla). For melodies, give me Handel any day.

John Rhodes

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