Cherubini’s semi extinct opera was televised across the globe for the first (and likely the last) time today. The opera owes its persistence to Maria Callas who performed the title role often during the 50s and early 60s. The part has a deserved reputation for difficulty, though there are many soprano roles just as demanding which carry greater artistic weight. The reason for opera’s first appearance at the Met 225 years after its composition is Sondra Radvanovsky. The American singer asked the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb to produce it for her and he promptly obliged.
Medea is in the space between the two operatic titans of the late 18th century and early 19th – Mozart and Rossini. The listener can hear traces of the former in Cherubini’s opera, but nothing of the latter. Rossini invented 19th century opera all on his own. His operas in style and musical language are unlike anything that preceded them.
Almost all the interest in today’s performance is in the title role. Radvanovsky has a voice bigger than the orbit of Jupiter. It’s not the most sensuous of instrument, but that’s not needed for this role. Power, declamation, and dramatic thrust are the key ingredients for the soprano who takes up Cherubini’s challenge. She has them all. The first 20 minutes of the opera prior to her entrance seemed like hours. Once onstage, she was the complete focus of the show. She handled the difficult lines with ease. So powerful was her performance that one could easily picture her as Turandot. And, of course, it’s a lot shorter, it’s done more often, and the pay’s the same which is why Birgit Nilsson was so found of the Puccini opera. Radvanovsky spent more time writhing around the floor than she did upright. People under great emotional duress do not typically crawl, but crawl she did. Video director Gary Halvorson’s close-ups were unkind. Nevertheless, the soprano’s performance was good enough to justify staging a relic opera that’s been neglected for a reason. Part of the problem with the opera is that its protagonist is completely out of her mind. Most jilted women don’t kill their children to get back at their former inamorato.
The rest of the cast was first rate. Particularly noteworthy was the singing of mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Medea’s slave Néris. She got the opera’s only real melody with her Act 2 aria ‘Solo un pianto con te versare’. The fine melody is shared with the bassoon. The Russian singer was outstanding. She’ll be back latter in the season as Adalgisa in Norma. Bellini’s story is Medea lite. She too has two children by a faithless lover and thinks about killing them. She doesn’t go through with the deed because she’s not completely deranged as is Medea.
Janai Brugger has a light high soprano that satisfactorily handled the lines give to Glauce – the woman whom Giasone (Jason) plans to marry. Medea kills her and in this production her father King Creonte, as well. The king was sung by Michele Pertusi who was in particularly fine voice this afternoon.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani has been the Met’s go to guy for a long time. This season is his 25th with the company. His voice was full and satisfying as Giasone; and he made Giasone a bit less than a cad for dumping Medea. But then who wants to be permanently attached to a crazy woman? Polenzani will always to a good job with whatever assignment comes his way, but few would make a special trip just to hear him as one would for Radvanovsky.
Maestro Carlo Rizzi led a firm and sensitive reading from the Met’s orchestra. Almost all the music consists of dramatic depictions of the action. There’s little that is memorable either rhythmically of melodically save for the aria mentioned above.
David McVicar’s production is set mostly in the early 19th century – that’s where the costumes come from. The big wall that separates outside from inside could be at any time period. There’s a slanted wall of mirrors at the back of the stage that gives the audience an angular view of the action. McVicar’s updating the time from legendary Greece, where it belongs, to a time of his choice is a constant feature of operatic directors who feel compelled to rearrange thing for no reason. This kind of meddling is a tic rather than a feature. The stage was also a lot darker than it had to be.
In summary, a fine performance of a neglected opera that has been such for a reason. And a great one by the star for whom it was resurrected.
Metropolitan Opera House
October 22, 2022
Luigi Cherubini – François-Benoît Hoffman
Leader of the King’s Guard…….Christopher Job
Handmaidens: Brittany Renee, Sarah Larsen
Medea’s Children: Axel Newville, Magnus Newville
Set Designer…………………David McVicar
Costume Designer……………..Doey Lüthi
Lighting Designer…………….Paule Constable
Projection Designer…………..S. Katy Tucker
Movement Director…………….Jo Meredith