In brief: Connolly spurned in love; goes on murderous rampage with carving knife. And poison, phantoms, hell-fiends and mind-control.
I.e. all good stuff (for an opera).
There’s clearly trouble in Corinth, because the war council are meeting, political alliances are forming and fraying, and the top brass are scared stiff, much as they try and hide it behind epaulettes and swagger. In David McVicar’s 1940s-styled production, the three factions are represented with Creon and the Corinthians as the Army, Jason (and his group, presumably also from Thessaly) the Navy, and Orontes (Team Argos) as the Air Force – all of them gathered in an elegant mansion with a mirror-silvered floor that I should like to copy, should I even own a ballroom, and lighting perfectly judged for a period feel (Paule Constable). Political mixes with personal when Creon realises both Jason and Orontes are sniffing round his daughter Creusa, that if she were married to one of them, the new husband would be forced to stay in Corinth and help defend the place, and that actually, having reviewed their CVs, Jason would be a more useful son-in-law than Orontes. (Unfortunate that he’d already more or less promised the job/wife to Orontes, then.)
The libretto seems to imply that Creusa and Jason’s love is not only genuine but mutual; I found this love entirely unconvincing, and hope that this was intentional. If so, Katherine Manley did a very good job of acting Creusa acting being in love/lust with Jason, while actually caring for nobody but herself and her father. (The libretto did not imply an incestuous relationship between Creon and Creusa, but the direction certainly did. What is it with opera and incest? I blame Wagner.) Jeffrey Francis, I’m sorry to say, mostly seemed, from my point of view, to be acting a stuffed shirt. A friend in Row B of the stalls reckons his characterisation was ‘subtle’, but I’m afraid that from further back, this did not come across. While I can’t pick a fault in his singing – it seemed very correct and competent – his lack of charisma meant that the only way to accept the main plot point of Creusa and Medea fighting over this portly, stuffy, middle-aged, Golden-Fleece-days-long-past (but still a useful battle strategist) version of Jason was to presume Creusa being manipulative (and manipulated), and Medea gripped by the kind of obsessive fixation that looks upon the beloved object and sees something very different than others do.
This opera is one that stands or falls, in large part, on its Medea, and this production, therefore, could not possibly fall with the superb Sarah Connolly in the title role. I was surprised, on looking back, to realise how little I’ve actually seen of her in live, staged opera (the last apparently being Rosenkavalier), given that I rate her as one of the best mezzos around, not to mention the definitive Giulio Cesare. I’m not alone in my high opinion; having arrived early for the opera, I struck up a conversation with a fashionably-dressed Young Person who – stereotyping ahoy! – didn’t look like the expected audience for obscure French baroque. Wondering if he’d been wooed in by the ENO’s Yeah, Wear Jeans – Groovy! policy, I asked what had brought him along to this, and he looked at me like I was an idiot, saying “Duh, Sarah Connolly is amazing??”. Anyway, yes she was, miserable and downtrodden at the start, then an ominously overheating pressure-cooker of warped emotion, going to full demon-summoning, wrist-slashing homicidal mania in Act 3, then moving finally to chilly disdain for the lives of the pathetic humans surrounding her – and all the time, singing with a depth of expression and intensity that somehow kept the audience on her side even as the bodies piled up. (Well, the adult bodies, anyway. I expect she lost a few people’s sympathy when it came to the children.) Of the other singers, regular readers will not be surprised to find me once more declaiming the brilliance of favourite bass Brindley Sherratt. Creon only gets the one decent aria, but, damn, if it wasn’t stunning stuff – and not in the least diminished in tragic intensity by the fact that he had to deliver it with his trousers round his ankles. This takes talent. Third star of the show was bronze-timbred baritone Roderick Williams as Squadron Commander Orontes Flashheart, having to cope, for probably the first time in his life, with not Getting the Girl – and the only source of humour, warmth and likeability on stage.
It is perhaps unfair to call Williams the only source of humour, as there was a highly entertaining moment of unexpected camp in Act 1, where the troops first enter, and Team Thessaly (the Navy) – minus Jason, of course – suddenly break into an anachronistic high-kicking dance routine, to the bemusement and suspicion of Corinth and Argos alike. I also found Creusa’s final scene to have some amusement value – although, to be fair, she gave a pathetic and affecting death aria once the poison dress was activated. However, to dip into the inaccurate stereotype pool again, it did strike me as such a blonde soprano thing, to go and ask a favour of the homicidal sorceress whose husband you’ve just stolen, while wearing her best dress (that you’ve more or less just stolen). That’s not going to wind her up even more, no. There were further dance scenes, as being French opera, there has to be half an hour where the action stops, the main characters plonk themselves down (in this case in a pink glittery aeroplane) and watch some random filler dance acts – but these weren’t particularly funny, just some slack-jawed, splay-legged sleaziness in suspenders, performed to music that (sorry, M. Charpentier) shouldn’t have survived the editing process, if there was such a thing.
In addition to something of a fixation on deep-pitched voices, this blog takes particular notice of outsize instruments. So, in the pit, one bass recorder (Catherine Fleming) spotted beforehand, listened out for, and very much enjoyed. The other two recorders (Ian Wilson, Merlin Harrison) were inferior only in terms of size, and with no disrespect to the rest of the excellent ensemble, of the instrumental component of the score it was the recorder section that stood out – they were exquisite. French baroque opera is not a genre of music I am particularly familiar with (in some part due to being put off, as an undergraduate, by an interminably dull – afternoon? day? week? Might have only been an hour or so, but felt like 10 years? – spent studying Lully), and I admit it did take me a while to settle into the groove. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had my head mostly in Wagner mode recently, where EXTREME is the thing, restraint not so much, but at first I found Charpentier’s composition somewhat samey, with little stylistic differentiation based on which character was singing, their mood, what they were singing about, and to whom. However, as I became more used to the genre, the more subtle differences of tempo, timbre, melody and harmony came fully into focus. Nevertheless, I suggest that without expert direction, the music would fall down flat in a ditch, and its success here is due to the combination of enthusiasm, knowledge, and minute attention to detail of MD Christian Curnyn.
As well as added incest, there seemed to be a bit of a shoe theme going on. Medea kicks off her shoes to denote entering hellfire mode (as well as losing her prim suit, and chucking a chair) – quite right: one can’t be a-revenging in court shoes. The two fiends she summons from the depths are, as well as being flayed and bloody, tormented further by being forced to squish their toes into uncomfortable high heels for eternity. And Creusa, rather distractingly, spends one scene lurching irritatingly around the stage with one shoe (high heeled, of course) off and one shoe on. I should like to know what this represents.