As somebody named after a character from Shakespeare’s rarely-performed Timon of Athens*, I am wary of rarely-performed works. There is usually a reason for persistent neglect. And Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea has been so rarely staged that this David McVicar production is its UK premiere, 320 years after it first opened in Paris.
But I’m happy to report my fears were unfounded. Opera companies all over the world must be kicking themselves right now. True, a modern audience may be reluctant to sit patiently through the lengthy interludes of dancing and chorus singing that intersperse (or hold up) the dramatic developments of the plot. The production seems to play with this at one point, when it feels as if the first interval will never come, and one of the onstage characters leads optimistic applause several times, only to be cut off by the next song or dance.
But the dancing is witty, energetic and entertaining, and the fresh mix of baroque, jive and bump’n’grind styles plays with the music, the World War II setting and the modern audience’s familiarity with music videos. And the spurious dancing and singing is always justified by the storyline, whether it’s a spectacle commissioned by the amorous Orontes to win Creusa’s heart or the diabolical writhings of the beings Medea summons from Hades to wreak her terrible revenge.
In this case, Hell hath fury exactly like a woman scorned. Medea is feared and hated by the citizens for her past deeds (unspecified in this opera, but in myth she dismembered her own brother to distract her pursuing family while she eloped with Jason). But when we first meet her she’s just a woman who fears her husband has fallen for a younger blonde.
The wartime setting is all-pervasive: all the men and most of the women are in uniform, and Jason makes a convincing case that he’s only courting Princess Creusa to cement a defensive alliance with her father, General Creon. There are soldiers everywhere, an oppressive atmosphere of fear and deceit broken briefly when Orontes and his squadron of gallant airmen arrive. For a while, jolly dancing brings everyone together: army, navy and air force, khaki-clad women, politicians, even the waitress serving drinks. Then the machinations resume.
The competing claims of love and the glory of war are a recurrent theme. Christopher Cowell’s translation sits lightly with the music, its simplicity leaving space for the emotions to come through the music and the powerful performances. ‘Mark my despair,’ sing Jason and Creusa to each other, if you should regret your choice to be with me instead of Orontes or Medea. Their insecurities echo and counterpoint, ‘Mark my despair, Mark my despair…’ Because, though her suspicions are not confirmed until halfway through the drama, Medea is being betrayed by Jason, whose feelings are divided between her and Creusa. And it’s the very human dimensions of all the main characters, who confide their dilemmas in duets as well as revealing them in soliloquising arias, that makes the tragedy emotionally plausible.
Medea has unearthly powers. The fears of the populace are justified when she summons the powers of Hades to help her take revenge, but by then we have seen her sentenced to exile from Jason and their sons, racked with fear that she has lost his love, and deceived about his intentions. So though she’s a semi-divine figure from Greek myth, she’s also a person like anyone we know who has been betrayed and heartbroken.
Unlike any person we know, however, she is able to turn the tables on those who thought her powerless. Her revenges are so terrible they have the chorus singing ‘Oh cruel Gods!’ and vowing never to worship at their temples again. We’re asked to sympathise with Medea’s feelings, but not to condone her actions.
In spite of being based broadly on Euripides’ character, Charpentier’s Medea is curiously modern, and at times her modernity emerges into the music, with harsh discords that strain against baroque formality. Sudden shifts of mood when indecisive or duplicitous lovers move from passion to fear, jealousy or anguish are propelled by nimble changes of tempo, texture and key. And yet there are pure period passages of warlike brass and kettledrums, harpsichord accompanied recitative, and diabolical thundersheet action.
If you don’t like baroque music, it might be an overlong evening of spurious dancing. But if this production doesn’t put Charpentier’s Medea back into the opera repertoire I’m not sure what would.