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οὐκ εἰσὶ δόμοι: φροῦδα τάδ᾽ ἤδη

Teatro alla Scala
01/14/2024 -  & January 17, 20, 23, 26, 28, 2024
Luigi Cherubini: Médée
Marina Rebeka*/Maria Pia Piscitelli/Claire de Monteil (Médée), Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Jason), Nahuel di Pierro (Créon), Martina Bussomanno (Dircé), Ambroisine Bré (Néris), Greta Doveri (First Maid), Mara Gaudenzi (Second Maid)
Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Alberto Malazzi (chorus master), Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Michele Gamba (conductor)
Damiano Michieletto (stage director), Paolo Fantin (sets), Carla Teti (costumes), Alessandro Carletti (lighting), Mattia Palma (dramaturgy)

S. de Barbeyrac, M. Rebeka

Premièred in Paris in 1797, Cherubini’s Médée was originally written in French, set to a libretto based on Euripides’ play from Greek Antiquity. It’s the original French setting that Teatro alla Scala is presenting this month. At its première, the work was tepidly received and mostly forgotten for well over a century and a half, when Maria Callas revived its Italian version as a vehicle for her dramatic talent. That version is more condensed, with a reduced presence for roles other than the protagonist’s, probably rendering it more gruesome yet more dramatically powerful.

However, one could argue that there is more balance in rendering a character such as Dircé (“Glauce” in the Italian version) more fully developed than a virginal ingénue destined to perish by Médée’s machinations. Beyond these secondary differences, the Italian version is an early Romantic opera with sung recitatives, composed by Franz Lachner (1803‑1890), while the French original is a pre‑Romantic opéra comique in which spoken dialogue alternates with sung music. Therein lies the major flaw of the French version, which I saw in France a few years ago. Despite an excellent francophone cast, this opéra comique with solemn declamations in the spoken dialogues felt contrived. Stage works alternatingly sung and spoken may work for comedies, but rarely in tragedies. The sole exception is Carmen, a work so powerful that it could survive any destructive variation.

Given the weakness of the French version, I had major fears for the tedious spoken dialogues, especially in a non‑French speaking city where the public would soon lose interest. Director Damiano Michieletto had the ingenious idea of suppressing the original dialogue and substituting it with brief lines read by two children. This is no innocent ploy. In our era of Urtext fidelity, it may be seen as a serious breach of Cherubini’s original intentions. However, in choosing to do so, Michieletto gave life to Médée and Jason’s two small children, silent roles in the opera.

As always, this imaginative yet controversial director presents an idiosyncratic vision. He sees this Greek tragedy through contemporary eyes, as a family drama, a tragic domestic affair. The breakup, Médée’s depression, the upcoming marriage of their father to an unsympathetic stepmother, and the authoritarian demeanor of her father Créon are all described via the innocent chatter of children.

οὐκ εἰσὶ δόμοι: φροῦδα τάδ᾽ ἤδη (There is no longer a house, it is gone now) is the ancient Greek text projected on the stage during the powerful overture. Michieletto’s resetting of the tragedy is most likely a contemporary Greek village. Given Paolo Fantin’s vulgar furniture and Carla Teti’s hideous costumes, this can’t possibly be Athens or any major Greek city. The Easter egg colours of both the men’s and women’s costumes is typical of a certain West European disparaging view of Orthodox Europe. Such ugliness does not augment the intensity of the drama, though Jason’s ghastly green suit was effective, reminiscent of Ceausescu-era communist mafiosi. It removed any heroic aspect of this legendary “hero.” After all, he only managed to snatch the Golden Fleece thanks to Princess Médée’s help, the betrayal of her family, her homeland (Colchis or present day Georgia in the Caucus) and even the murder of her own brother.

This woman, having given up homeland, family and rank, also finds herself dispossessed of her husband, children and family home. The ambitious Jason wants to marry Dircé, King Créon’s daughter, to advance his position. In Michieletto’s setting, the ugly green suit says it all: Jason is a petty, low‑life manipulator, angling to be top dog by marrying the daughter of the most powerful man in town. He justifies breaking his marriage vows to Médée due to her status of foreigner (βάρβαρος or barbarian in Greek). This xenophobia is an utterly contemporary theme that could have been further emphasized. Her status as “outsider” is Médée’s heaviest burden.

Though La Scala has recently presented the Italian versions of Don Carlos and Les Vêpres siciliennes, both originally in French, it chose to present the original French version of Cherubini’s Médée rather than its better-known Italian adaptation made famous by Maria Callas. The Gallic version is in the style of Gluck, the great reformer who believed opera should be a perfect blending of its two components, music and text, whereas the Italian version is an early Romantic Italian opera whose style heralds early bel canto.

Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka stepped in to replace an indisposed soprano, to the relief of many, given the noticeable wobble heard recently in the latter’s voice. Rebeka is one of the most sought‑after sopranos of our epoch. She possesses a beautifully distinct timbre; her lyric soprano is powerful enough to extend beyond her Fach with ease. Interestingly, she showed that her gifts are ideal for a role wrongly assumed to be best suited for a more dramatic voice. This assumption is due to role’s association with Maria Callas in her later career. Another notable Médée/Medea, again in the Italian version, was Hungarian dramatic soprano Sylvia Sass. Such heavier voices emphasize the ferocity of the anti‑heroine and the intensity of her rage. However, Médée in the original French version is a more subtle character, Gluckian rather than extrovertedly Italian Romantic.

Rebeka’s beautiful timbre emphasized Médée’s femininity and fragility. This Médée is no older wife losing her husband to a prettier younger woman. She is wronged and betrayed by a selfish, ungrateful and ambitious spouse. Her Act I aria, “Vous voyez de vos fils la mère infortunée,” was completely convincing and imploringly desperate. In contrast, her Act II opening aria, “O détestable hymen! O fureur! O vengeance!,” was terrifying without being excessive, a common flaw with other sopranos. My only reservation about Marina Rebeka’s Médée was her diction. A great musician, she was able to ably pronounce the French words, but this alone is insufficient in this Gluckian role, where music and lyrics need to be fused. The proper emphasis on key words in critical moments was absent. If Rebeka chooses to keep Médée in her repertoire, she’ll need a rigorous language coach versed in the French school of singing and its distinctive method of vocal emission.

Many have little sympathy for the murderous anti-heroine. Her savage infanticide is considered the selfish crime of a narcissist determined to destroy her husband, for whom she had sacrificed everything. To attenuate this aspect of Médée’s personality, a more feminine lyric voice was chosen. Rebeka never acted hysterically as is often the case in this opera. Her psychological condition was depression rather than mania. To soften the brutality of her terrible crime and to increase the public’s sympathy for her plight, Médée doesn’t stab her children but administers a poison, in the form of a comforting hot cocoa, before lovingly putting them to bed. In Euripides’s play, Medea flies off in a fiery chariot provided by her grandfather, the sun god Helios. In Michieletto’s movingly humane adaptation, Médée opts for suicide by drinking the same beverage she gave her children. The opera ends with an extinguished Médée on a coach.

A truly extraordinary tenor, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, is versatile enough to enjoy such impressive roles as Don José (Carmen), Florestan (Fidelio), Max (Der Freischütz), Siegmund (Die Walküre), Pylade (Iphigénie en Tauride), Pelléas (Pelléas et Mélisande), Tito (La clemenza di Tito) and Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni) in his repertoire. Such versatility astounds. His timbre is perfect for the “heroic” yet pathetic role of Jason. His hideous green suits juxtaposed with his brutish demeanor made this perfidious Argonaut truly unsympathetic. De Barbeyrac managed to portray an anti‑hero, a weakling and a bully, though Jason is also a victim of circumstance, not a mere scoundrel. His excellent diction and winning style made his Act I aria “Eloigné pour jamais d’une épouse cruelle” a truly memorable moment.

Argentinian singer Nahuel di Pierro’s warm bass had the right colour for the role of Créon, King of Corinth. He managed to seem unsympathetic but not overly so. Most likely, this was intentional in Michieletto’s relegating the king to village mayor at best or a bandit chief at worst. Unfortunately, his Act I aria, “C’est à vous de trembler, femme impie et barbare,” was insufficiently threatening. But Créon’s slimy character transpired best in his treatment of the children. Oddly enough, in Act II, Créon’s followers had prepared a pyre on which to burn Médée, which he prevented. This struck me as an odd affair in a contemporary resetting of the work.

Martina Bussomanno impressed as the Créon’s daughter Dircé. Her light lyric coloratura contrasted beautifully with Médée’s more imposing voice. This was not a typical virginal ingénue. Her posture and deportment were regal, a true king’s daughter rather than a village chief’s offspring. Her behaviour with Jason’s children betrayed intense dislike, even fear. Her opening aria, “Hymen! Viens dissiper une vaine frayeur,” was ravishingly interpreted, evoking both fragility and apprehension. Moreover, her diction was first rate.

French mezzo Ambroisine Bré exuded such imposingly charismatic stage presence that the normally minor role of Médée’s nurse and confidant assumed a larger importance. Néris is usually a loving submissive matron, but here, director Michieletto has chosen to make her sexless. He also hinted at predatory behaviour toward her from the brutish Jason. Perhaps this is one reason for her non-feminine attire and deportment. She was as much the children’s nurse as Médée’s, eagerly protective of all three. Surprisingly, her Act II recitative and aria, “Malheureuse Princesse!... Ah! Nos peines seront communes!,” was a high point of the evening, thanks to Bré’s warm timbre, exceptional diction and true mastery of the French style.

The usually excellent La Scala chorus, which plays a prominent role in this opera, was insufficiently well‑prepared. Without previous knowledge of the text or the presence of subtitles, it would have been hard to tell what they were saying. This again raises the question of language. However, Michele Gamba proved to be an ideal conductor. His energetic tempi in the powerful overture ensured intense drama. He effortlessly adjusted his tempi to suit the singers’ needs, especially Médée in her most dramatic moments.

Cherubini was considered by Beethoven to be the greatest living composer of his time. A sampling of his string quartets, numerous masses and more obscure operas attest to his formidable talent. The reason for his present day relative obscurity relates to the epoch. He is a late classicist but not yet a Romantic, writing in a transitional musical idiom. The music is not as overtly expressive as that of the Romantics. Also, like Etienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763‑1817) and François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775‑1834), he was a composer of the brief French Revolutionary rule, a period that its successors wanted forgotten.

Several major theatres, including Teatro alla Scala, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Moscow’s Stanislavski, Warsaw’s Teatr Wiekli, New York’s Metropolitan and Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, are producing Cherubini’s most famous opera, both in the French original and in the Italian adaptation. In some cases, it is to provide a vehicle for sopranos who wish to claim Callas’s throne. While few of these prima donnas will achieve this ambitious goal, this dramatically powerful and musically brilliant work is finally and deservedly gaining renown. May this open the door of discovery to other operas by Cherubini, such rarely performed gems as Démophoon (1788), Lodoïska (1791), Les Deux Journées, ou Le Porteur d’eau (1800), Les Abencérages (1813) and Ali Baba, ou Les Quarante Voleurs (1833).

Ossama el Naggar



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