Staatsoper Berlin’s serious confrontation with the serious drama of Cherubini’s Médée

GermanyGermany Cherubini, Médée: Soloists, Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright), Staatskapelle Berlin / Oksana Lyniv (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 21.2.2020. (MB)

Cherubini’s Médée (c) Bernd Uhlig


Director – Andrea Breth
Set designs – Martin Zehetgruber
Costumes – Carla Teti
Lighting – Olaf Freese


Médée – Sonya Yoncheva
Jason – Francesco Demuro
Créon – Iain Paterson
Dircé – Slávka Zámečníková
Néris – Marina Prudenskaya
Médée’s handmaidens – Serena Sáenz, Aytak Shikhalizada
Médée’s children – Malik Bah, Toyi Kramer

Since enduring Simon Stone’s extravagant travesty of Cherubini’s Médée in Salzburg last summer, I have been keen to see an alternative staging. That opportunity came sooner than I had dared hope, with a revival of Andrea Breth’s 2018 production for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. One major concern notwithstanding, Breth’s production is in another league, an intelligent attempt, in many respects well realised, to respond both to the specificity of the work and to some of its broader ideological concerns.

Set designs (Martin Zehetgruber) are more or less what one would expect from a Breth production. More concerned, at least unless I were missing something, with establishing a stage aesthetic than with specific meaning of their own, they would not have looked entirely out of place in her Wozzeck or Lulu for this same house. I have no problem with that: different directors work in different ways; the point here is to focus on what does matter dramatically to Breth and her collaborators, a mission finely accomplished. Balance is well judged between provision of a space – not just a scenic space, but certainly that too – for the drama, renewed in much of its horror, strangeness, and yet credibility and familiarity, to unfold, and a critical stance upon Médée’s status as an outsider. With respect to the former, Breth clearly knows how to bring out the best from her cast as actors; there is little or no sense of anything extraneous, rather of a musical drama unfolding, gathering pace, enveloping characters and audience – when it can be bothered to remain silent – alike.

This is not a reductive attempt, as with Stone, to make Médée ‘relatable’; in reality, all it did was banish her story and much of her agency. This Médée knows her strengths, is unafraid to use them, and exacts her revenge – just as we should expect. Yet, alongside that, Breth takes care to suggest why this might be so. Créon’s Corinth is not and could never be a friendly place to her, however magnanimously her rival Dirce’s father might have offered ‘sanctuary’ to Médée’s sons. Therein, alas, lies my major concern too. It is an excellent idea, with strong roots in the ‘original’ myth as well as in the opera itself, to stress Médée’s unacceptable otherness to the polis. Carla Teti’s costumes, Olaf Freese’s lighting, and various other aspects of the production, contribute to this admirably, as does Sonya Yoncheva’s performance. The discredited practice of ‘brownface’, however, does little more than distract, at best, as unnecessary as it is offensive. Had there been some element of deconstruction, in a very different, less direct sort of production, perhaps showing a ‘behind the scenes’ transformation or at any rate problematising the practice, perhaps there would have been an argument. Here, I am afraid it steals the show in quite the wrong way: a great pity.

For Yoncheva’s performance was of a stature that it would have moved and explained all simply – or not so simply – through her voice, let alone her stage presence. Clean and focused of tone – no ‘dramatic’ imprecision here – yet at the same all-encompassing in its mystery and magic, hers was a contribution that gripped from beginning to end. Slávka Zámečníková’s Dircé, spirited and alluring, yet a fatally insecure rival, proved equally impressive, as did Marina Prudenskaya’s typically thoughtful, beautifully sung account of Néris, Médée’s faithful slave. As Jason, Francesco Demuro acted well, taking care not to court our sympathy, yet vocally, this was often an unduly Italianate, extroverted performance, out of kilter not only with the production but with a greater appreciation of French style shown elsewhere. A dry-toned Iain Paterson was strangely out of sorts in his first-act aria, ‘C’est à vous de trembler,’ yet rallied later on. Choral singing was excellent throughout.

If there were times when I wished for something a little larger-scale, more ‘Romantic’ – I could not help but wonder what Daniel Barenboim made of Cherubini’s score in 2018 – Oksana Lyniv’s conducting had its own logic and merits, well placed to win over any scepticism founded in mere taste. I admired her technical control over the Staatskapelle Berlin last autumn in the concert hall. Similarly admirable control and what came across as fine rapport with the orchestra were harnessed to proper understanding of the dramatic implications of Cherubini’s musical structures. In the theatre, structure became form, most strikingly of all in the third act, yet without question throughout. Neo-Gluckian style was harnessed to idea, rather than vice versa.

The ‘version’ of spoken dialogue used, credited to Breth and Sergio Morabito, worked well, an inordinate improvement on the interminable voicemail messages – I kid you not – served up by Stone in Salzburg. Even Médée’s breathy, amplified, final-act interventions stayed the right side of menace and ‘madness’. That strange, sad miscalculation concerning make-up notwithstanding, then, there was more than enough to confirm the stature of Cherubini’s opera and have one experience its musico-dramatic immediacy. This was a serious confrontation with a serious drama.

Mark Berry

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