Coliseum, London

Classical review: Medea - Hello, sailor! The fleet's in and it's one hell of a show

3.00

 

All the nice girls love a sailor. But so do the mad girls and the bad girls. Exquisitely bored by the monotonous hum and click of sewing machines and knitting needles in a snowbound fishing village, Senta annihilates herself for love of the cursed hero of The Flying Dutchman. Enraged by rejection, and pressed on all sides by the complex politics of an uneasy military alliance, the sorceress Medea slaughters her children and poisons her rival to wring hot tears from the cold eyes of unfaithful Jason.

Hitherto unstaged in Britain, Charpentier's Médée is shorn of its triumphal prologue in David McVicar's production for ENO. There is glitz enough in what remains: a dazzling cabaret of sequinned hotpants, crotch-hugging bell-bottoms and boozy Allied Forces socials in a requisitioned palazzo in the Second World War, while Sarah Connolly's Medea does what operatic heroines do and becomes a monstrous icon of herself.

First to go is the immaculate hair, then the sharp tailoring, the court shoes, the inhibitions, the semblance of humanity. Directed from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn, the orchestra swarms around Connolly's delirious, furious voice, an eerie cloud of muted strings and fluttering recorders, the gloaming to the arc light of trumpets and oboes that greets Creon (Brindley Sherratt), Jason (Jeffrey Francis), and the swaggering American airman Orontes (Roderick Williams).

Charpentier, whose career had been thwarted at every turn by Lully, threw everything he had into Corneille's tragédie lyrique, cheekily adding an Italian aria in Act II. McVicar does the same. Imagine In Which We Serve remade by Bob Fosse, a lindy-hopping extravaganza featuring a glittering full-sized Spitfire (choreography by Lynne Page). Throw in the brooding glamour of a Joan Crawford vehicle (lighting by Paule Constable), turn Katherine Manley's Creusa into the "fair Miss Frigidaire" of High Society (designs by Bunny Christie), then cut to Fatal Attraction. In the text and on the stage, Medea's infanticide is almost an afterthought. What are two dead human children when you can give birth to bloody Vengeance (Oliver Dunn) and Jealousy (John McMunn), and a wardful of zombie nurses and war-wounded? Want to see eight pudenda used as fists? Look no further.

Charpentier's music is tailored precisely to the rhythm and timbre of his mother tongue. Translating this bitch of an opera is a bitch of a job, though Christopher Cowell's Nahum Tate-ish libretto places us squarely in the late 17th century. Along with a text-responsive trio of gamba and theorbos, ENO has assembled a cast whose love of language informs every note – not just the incandescent Connolly and Williams (their Act III duet is the musical highlight), but young artists Aoife O'Sullivan, Sophie Junker and Rhian Lois. Scene changes pass in the blink of an eye, while small details register crisply – the brisk smoothing of telephonists' skirts when Jason, already yesterday's man, passes by. To those who love Médée, McVicar will seem to have tried too hard to entertain those who don't. All the same, what a show. What music. And what a monster.

In Belfast, another heroine achieved self-actualisation with a kitchen knife. Without a cliff to throw herself off, Giselle Allen's Senta calmly turned her back on the audience for Oliver Mears's Northern Ireland Opera production of The Flying Dutchman (Grand Opera House ****) and cut her throat, staggering ecstatically to her death.

Allen was the unguarded, unstinting heart of a thrifty but thrilling Wagner debut from a company that is barely two years old. Her passion for Bruno Caproni's Dutchman was made more explicable by the awkward affection of Paul McNamara's Erik than by Caproni's Michael Howardish vowels ("terry-bill woo-man").

In the pit, Nicholas Chalmers whipped the Ulster Orchestra into a storm. The vivacious women's chorus, purse-lipped froideur of Doreen Curran's Mary, bright machismo of Adrian Dwyer's Steersman, and distracted bluster of Stephen Richardson's Daland deserve to be seen for more than two performances. Now NI Opera has tackled its first Wagner, it is time for its first revival.

'Medea' (020-7845 9300) to 16 Mar

Critic's Choice

Bernarda Fink joins the Academy of Ancient Music in pieces by Vivaldi and others at London's Wigmore Hall (Mon) and Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall (Wed). Matthias Pintscher directs the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Johannes Moser in Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto and Beethoven's Seventh at Glasgow's City Halls(Thu).

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power