Wexford Festival Opera 2017 – Medea: Heavy-Handed Direction Distracts From Soprano Lise Davidsen’s Stunning Showcase

(Credit: Wexford Festival Opera)

In order to successfully produce any work for the theatre, be it an opera or otherwise, a director must have a clear vision of the themes they wish to explore or highlight, and of the means by which they will present them, so that the audience can engage with the work in an intelligent and meaningful way.

Fiona Shaw, the director of Wexford Festival Opera’s production of Luigi Cherubini’s “Medea,” failed on both these counts, a victim of her own deep knowledge of the Medea myth, and of her undoubted skill in the theatre.

Overstuffed For Failure

Cherubini’s “Medea” follows Euripides’ well-known story of a mother who, having been betrayed by her husband, kills their two sons in an act of revenge, and thereby transgresses one of society’s most deeply held taboos. An act which is met with as much horror, disgust and incomprehension today as it did when Euripides wrote his play almost 2,500 years ago. Shaw, therefore, had plenty of angles from which to approach the work, whether it be on a psychological level or from the perspective of societal pressures, and she did not miss the opportunity to avail herself of these possibilities, and in fact, widened them to include the psychological fallout of Medea having murdered her brother, which played a significant role in the production. Yet, she still had more that she needed to include. In the festival program, Shaw, interestingly, identifies the fact that Cherubini’s “Medea” was completed in 1797, three years after Robespierre’s “Reign of Terror” had been brought to an end, a time in which moral standards had been seen to fail, and she sees a reflection of this in Cherubini’s opera, noting that “there is something emotionally and morally exhausting about the opera,” and uses this as the starting point for her production. However, this is also the point at which the problems start to occur, as her desire to incorporate all these themes led to a lack of clarity.

Moreover, she chose to present many of her ideas in the form of symbols, which also had the effect of adding to the confusion. To detail all the symbolic references and esoteric allusions which Shaw incorporates into her production would take far too much space in an article of this nature, so a few examples will have to suffice. During the overture, we are presented with an empty room with a rock in the middle of it, which disappears in the first act, yet reappears in the second and third acts, situated in Medea’s living room-cum-bedroom. This represents her failed relationship with Jason, although there is no possible way of discerning this without reading the program. Moreover, her dead brother seems to live in the rock, and periodically makes an appearance in order to involve himself in the action, on one occasion emerging on roller skates to entertain or frighten the children. Clearly, this a reference to some psychological baggage Medea is carrying around with her. Again, it is impossible to be cognizant of the fact he is Medea’s brother without reading the program first. He is dressed in the style of the late 18th century, a reference to the opera’s connection with the period. In every other way, the opera had been updated to the present day, except for the case of Jason’s final appearance, in which he also appears dressed in an 18th-century costume. The Golden Fleece makes many appearances, initially in a glass case, like a Damien Hirst creation, and symbolizes the problem that has driven Medea and Jason apart. Many interesting and curious things happen to the fleece during the evening, some of which can be easily understood, as when Jason and Medea fight over its possession. However, some are not so easily understood, as when Medea rips off its head and wears it as a hat, or when her dead brother wears the fleece and undertakes the role of a sheep, nuzzling up to Medea in the process. In Act one, set in a fitness center, Glauce, Jason’s bride-to-be, is being encouraged to dress up by her friends/servants for what looks like a forthcoming hen party. Strangely, in the program Shaw states that they intended to do exactly this, but in the end rejected the idea, so what exactly this was to be was not clear. The list of examples could be extended much further, and if they sound amusing, be assured they were not! The result was one of confusion and frustration, as the audience was left struggling to understand the continuous flow of symbolic imagery.

Moreover, shifting the drama from 450 BC to the present day created numerous incongruities, with the singers constantly referring to the Goddess Hymen, temples, kingdoms and so on, which bore little or no relation to what was happening on the stage.

Not All Bad

Nevertheless, the production was not without a positive side. The set designer, Annmarie Woods’ decision to have the entire opera set within enclosed small or smallish spaces worked well, as it intensified the drama and highlighted the claustrophobic psychological nature of the work. Moreover, the sets did foster the creation of the occasional captivating mise-en-scene, none more so than in the finale. Medea and her brother are sitting calmly on the ubiquitous rock, upon which also lie the dead bodies of her children and the corpse of Glauce, as it slowly descends below the stage, a sea storm sweeping over them, as the lights darken, and the curtain slowly falls.

Saing the Day

Having recently played the part of Strauss’ Ariadne in Glyndebourne to great critical acclaim, the up-and-coming soprano, Lise Davidsen, undertook the title role of Medea, and put in stunning performance. She possesses a seriously powerful and expressive voice, that maintains its quality throughout the range. Her vocal control, aided by what seems to be an endless supply of air, was very impressive indeed, as she spun out her lines with apparent ease. Davidsen is a big tall woman, who dominates the stage, and her entrance was awesome, notwithstanding a very drab choice in clothes. Medea’s reputation is already established before she appears, and the population already frightened. Medea must, therefore, make an immediate impact to be credible, and that is exactly what she did, her physicality and powerful voice scattering the gathered crowd in all directions, as she walked onto the left hand side of the stage.

Thoroughly Dominated

Sergey Romanovskiy, in the role of Jason, had the unenviable task of confronting the powerful Davidsen, and he really did not stand a chance. Immediately disadvantaged by his smaller physical stature, he was not helped by having to wear insipid clothing, which magnified the negative impression. Moreover, vocally he just could not compete; confrontations were one-sided affairs in which he was completely dominated. Romanovskiy, was however very unfortunate in this respect, as he possesses a pleasant sounding tenor, and displayed good technique. It is possible that he would make a very positive impression playing alongside a lesser soprano.

Powerhouses

Whereas Romanovskiy’s performance may have suffered in comparison to Davidsen’s Medea, the same cannot be said for Raffaella Lupinacci in the role of Neris, whose intelligent singing was a delight. She has a richly textured voice, which she embellished with subtle colouring and dynamic inflections to produce a wonderful portrayal of Medea’s servant, beautifully offsetting Medea’s histrionic outbursts with her cooler and controlled presence. Even when confronted with Davidsen’s vocal power, the quality of Lupinacci’s voice shone through.

Parading around the fitness center or Medea’s apartment, King Creon, played by Adam Lau, had to suffer some of the more absurd consequences of updating the opera to the present day, such as when he threatens to expel Medea from his kingdom – which presumably referred to the fitness center. Nevertheless, he was vocally quite impressive, his dark resonant bass which has a rough gravelly texture, endowing him with the gravitas necessary to impose his authority over Medea.

The Spanish soprano, Ruth Iniesta, displayed her sparkling coloratura in the role Glauce, who she portrayed as a naïve young girl, unable to respond maturely to the threat of Medea. Her youthful voice is bright and vivacious, which she used well to characterize the role. In the final scene, she cut a gruesome figure, indeed, after having being murdered on her wedding day by Medea. Dressed in a child’s wedding dress and white heels, blood oozing from her brow and covering her face and spattering her dress, she looked like an something from an X-rated horror film.

Far Livelier “Medea”

Originally, Cherubini wrote “Medea” in French with a large amount of spoken dialogue. This was later revised by a minor German composer called Frank Lachner who replaced the dialogue with accompanied recitatives. In 1909 it was translated into Italian. It is this version of the work that most people will be familiar with, owing to the recordings of Maria Callas, made in the 1950s. The conductor for this production of “Medea,” in Italian, for Wexford Festival Opera was Stephen Barlow, who decided to retain the recitatives but also add a small amount of the spoken dialogue where dramatically appropriate. Furthermore, he also decided to revert to the original tempi found in the French version of the work, which had also been changed when it had been converted into Italian. Barlow’s justification was that the Italian version was “over-Romanticised” and “horribly slow.” We were, thus, entertained to a far livelier version of “Medea,” which indeed did have a leaner and sharper feel to it. The Orchestra of the Wexford Festival Opera produced a wonderful performance, which did shed new light on a work for those of us brought up on the Callas version. If there is one criticism of Barlow’s performance, it was that he occasionally allowed the orchestra to swamped by Davidsen’s singing, which although certainly adding to the emotional intensity of the performance, meant that the audience was denied the sound of the accompanying orchestral textures, which were always of interest. However, it would have been impossible to have both, and maybe going with Davidsen’s emotionally intense portrayal was, in fact, the better option.

Under the direction of Errol Girdlestone, the chorus of the Wexford Festival Opera was yet again in scintillating form. Although on a personal note I do prefer the “horribly slow” choruses of the “over-Romanticised” version.

As a piece of musical theatre, this production can only be classed as partially successful. It had much to praise, not least the wonderful singing of its first class cast, headed by the extraordinary Lise Davidsen. However, owing to the heavy-handed direction of Fiona Shaw and her team its impact was impaired. She had too many themes she wished to explore, all of which on their own would have been valid, and this led to a confusing and at times tiring experience.

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