Coliseum, London

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



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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015