David McVicar’s production of Charpentier’s Médée – or Medea, in Christopher Cowell‘s felicitously idiomatic translation – is the most brilliant show to have graced the Coliseum in years. It’s by turns bold and brash – how could it not be, given the tabloid luridness of its subject matter? – and it’s also irresistibly seductive, as befits one of French Baroque music’s most ravishing scores which, after three centuries, is getting its first professional British staging.
The heroine of legend - and of Euripides’ play – ends up murdering (or causing to commit suicide) almost everyone in sight, additionally despatching her young sons as a final revenge for her husband Jason’s unfaithfulness.
The context is war: McVicar’s solution to the period problem is to set his drama in the Second World War, with Creon’s Corinthian palace becoming a cross between Buck House and Versailles, and Bunny Christie’s sets make this work very plausibly. Brindley Sherratt’s Creon is kitted out as a major-general, Jeffrey Francis’s Jason is an admiral, Roderick Williams’s Orontes is a squadron-leader with a posse of fighter pilots, and Sarah Connolly’s Medea comes straight out of Picture Post.
While Wrens plot manoeuvres with model ships on a table in a Churchillian war room, lieutenants prance about like ballet boyz, because McVicar has clearly encouraged choreographer Lynne Page and lighting designer Paule Constable to have fun: this gets wild when the score demands ‘masques’ (cue a full-size Mosquito fighter in pink spangles), and turns darkly sinister when Medea summons infernal spirits to do her bidding.
But the strength of this production lies in the assured way the drama keeps faith with the music. Supported by an exceptionally strong cast of singer-actors, and by a top-notch period ensemble under Christian Curnyn’s direction, Connolly gives a performance which is at once commanding and heart-rending: the long recitative in which she is transformed from a scorned and self-harming wife into an avenging fury has blistering authenticity.
And if her singing – with its very high tessitura - is a delight, so is Catherine Manley’s bewitchingly pure-toned Creusa, Jeffrey Francis’s sweet tenor, Roderick Williams’s versatile baritone, Aoife O’Sullivan’s camp Cupid, and Brindley Sherratt’s thundering bass. Shortage of space doesn’t permit me to praise the other outstanding performances which stud the evening.
Let’s hope English National Opera continues its investigation of the French Baroque repertoire, because the seam is rich and rewarding.
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