Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: Medea
Sondra Radvanovsky Reigns Supreme in Cherubini’s Masterwork TragedyBy David Salazar
The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2022-23 season with the company’s first-ever performance of Cherubini’s “Medea.”
The opera, which premiered in a French version back in 1797, was a major hit throughout the 19th century (with numerous translations, including the Italian one on offer at the Met) until it fell into seclusion, only to be rescued in the 20th century by one Maria Callas, whose interpretation remains the touchstone to this day.
Written by François-Benoît Hoffmann, the work was based on the famed Euripides play and “Medée” by Pierre Corneille and is rather razor sharp in its dramatic layout. After acquiring the Golden Fleece, Giasone has left Medea in order to marry Glauce, daughter of Creonte. But Medea, who has lost everything after giving herself over to Giasone, won’t relent and begs for reconciliation so that their family, which includes two children, can be together. But at every turn, she is rejected as a monstrous witch and told that she has one day to leave in one day or she will face certain doom. Medea, in her rage, concocts a plan to murder Glauce and, to hit Giasone where it hurts the most, kill her children.
The Met Opera’s program explicitly notes the opera’s straightforward structure as one big “dramatic tidal wide,” an emotional crescendo if you will, in which Medea’s anger and rage increasingly dominates the proceedings.
Simple But Direct
The simplicity of this dramatic structure was reflected in Sir David McVicar’s production. McVicar’s career at the Met has been a bit of a seeming downward spiral in many ways. His finest productions, a revelatory “Il Trovatore” and exhilarating “Giulio Cesare” seem like distant memories, replaced in recent years by increasingly monochromatic tableaus to hit or miss effect. While aspects of his Tudor Queen trilogy work well (while others didn’t), productions like “Don Carlo” lacked any visual contrast to support an opera with a wide-ranging dramatic palette. The same for this “Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci” double bill where the former paled in comparison with the poignancy of the latter.
But his “Medea,” despite its dark palette (which more than a McVicar touchstone, is a modern opera director’s cliché for creating a dark brooding atmosphere), is definitely a step up from most of his recent Met output. A curtain portrays the face of a woman, mouth agape, one of her eyes in the dark (or gone altogether, signifying a certain blindness). The stage itself features two golden gates that open and close to reveal shifting sets and the world of Creonte’s palace where Medea is barely ever allowed to enter. She occupies the space outside the gates, which are drenched in chiaroscuro lighting. Inside the gates, we see a large mirror that, in addition to showcasing projections, also allows audiences to see the back of the set more clearly.
(Admittedly depending on where you are sitting, the upstage section can be impossible to view; from the orchestra section, one had to rely on the mirror to get the full effect though in speaking with friends and family that saw the opera from the balcony and family circle, it was clear they got a bigger picture of the numerous tableaus on offer. It’s the ever-lasting conflict that any stage director at the Met has to traverse – staging an opera on the massive stage to a cavernous audience where one decision will favor one audience section over another.)
The opera grows increasingly darker with the golden gates going from glossy in Act one and two to looking corroded in the final Act. We get projections of a storm at the start of the final Act and when all is said and done, the final image showcases Medea, wrapped in the corpses of her two children, a projected fire consuming them and that entire world inside the palace. Given the opera’s love-hate dichotomy raging within its titular character, that this final image emphasizes the destructive power of the latter. It’s simple but effective.
And in my view, the reason why the production worked as well as it did was that without the business on set, it was easier to truly immerse oneself in arguably the most potent aspect of this opera – the music (not to mention that this was the first time the Met audience was seeing the opera so there’s really no point to going full-on Regietheater, not that newly minted Maria Manetti Shrem General Manager Peter Gelb would ever allow it).
In any case, the music.
A Musical Masterpiece
Beethoven is said to have called Cherubini the best composer amongst his contemporaries and just listening to the score, it is very clear that there was a major influence on the man that many would consider the greatest Classical composer of all time (myself included). The music is robust, varied, and full of colorful and incisive orchestration. After a stormy and endlessly circular overture, Cherubini settles into major keys for much of the opening scene to give off a celebratory and relaxed vibe. The music is playful and gentle and at the apex of “Pronube dive,” we get a glorious harmonic shift that emphasizes the sublime nature of this celebration. In between that, we get Glauce’s aria, “O Amore, vieni a me,” which features a prominent and skittish flute line to underscore her innocence; later on, Neris’ aria “Solo un pianto con te versare” will get a soothing bassoon accompaniment.
Medea however is musically explored in a different light. She arrives amidst rumbling strings, with conductor Carlo Rizzi starting to play a very intelligent card from here on out. It’s obvious that this opera would feature prominent bass throughout. But what became apparent more and more was how Rizzi allowed the lower strings to really stand out in the orchestral blend. You could hear the lower syncopations stand out as she begged for mercy from Creonte in Act two. When she relents and submits to her fate, the music shifts into a dark recitative with Medea repeating “Ebben! Tutto mi manca,” the lower strings sighing downward; each phrase is punctuated by a faster, accented iteration of the motive. Rizzi extended these lines, giving them a more foreboding and menacing character. The winds eventually enter to color Medea’s line, which softens the moment; but even here, Rizzi allowed the bass line to be pronounced, playing up the duality of Medea’s vulnerability and hostility raging within her.
This contrast was even more noticeable in the ensuing duet with Giasone, “Figli miei, miei tesor,” where the lower strings rumble throughout Medea’s opening phrase while the violins nervously fidget up and down. The violin motive quickens as Medea, adding a nervous tension until they resolve on a downward movement of the motive; it almost sounds like a cackle of sorts. These contrasting lines form the basis of the entire duet, creating a moment of intense dramatic tension throughout.
Medea’s second aria, “Del fiero duo,” features a mix of instrumentation, opening with the basses before bringing in the horns to support Medea’s pained line. The music shifts throughout to emphasize Medea’s internal conflict and Rizzi was there every step of the way matching the emotional shifts by spotlighting the diverse orchestral colors.
This is the kind of musical detail that Rizzi was able to bring to the fore with the help of the incredible Metropolitan Opera Orchestra which was at its finest throughout the night. That bass-heavy sound grew as the opera’s most violent scenes raged in the final act, adding to that feeling an emotional and dramatic crescendo. Despite hearing numerous recordings of the work, this was my first experience with it in person. Rizzi’s incisive approach aligned perfectly with the tautness of Cherubini’s brilliant score, delivering a crushing and emotionally overwhelming experience.
One of the True Modern Greats
One of the reasons that this brilliant opera doesn’t get the stage time is because it’s main role is a monster for any soprano that attempts it. The vocal line stretches a soprano from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows with everything in between. And nothing is out of the realm of possibility. One moment, Cherubini has a soprano in the upper range and a few notes later she has to descend all the way to the bottom. Maximum versatility is required. But not just technical, but also dramatic and physical. Throw in the complex psychology of the character and you have a role that isn’t for anyone. As mentioned earlier, Maria Callas is the benchmark interpretation and most subsequent recordings pay homage to her in one way or another.
In the case of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who took on the role in the opening night performance, that deep respect was evident. You could hear it in some of the phrasing choices and vocal colors that she applied. But, in saying that, Radvanovsky, one of the most profoundly moving opera artists on the planet, made it her own.
More than any other singer in the world, she fills the cavernous Met auditorium every time she starts singing. Whether it be the gentlest of pianos to the most forceful of fortissimos in a massive choral passage, you always hear her. But what she brought to this Medea, more than any other role I have heard her sing, was a vast palette of vocal colors. She could shift from a disembodied nasally whisper as she called on the Gods for vengeance, to a glorious and full legato line during “Ebben! Tutto mi manca.”
Nowhere was this more evident than in her opening aria “Dei tuoi figli la madre” in which Medea implores that Giasone return to her. The vocal line weeps throughout and Radvanovsky managed the opening section with a gloriously gentle piano sound (to this point, her more aggressive vocal qualities were merely hinted at but never exposed), her voice caressing each phrase. She placed a pained accent on the first two “Crudel” enunciations, emphasizing Medea’s heartbreak. But then she started to shift toward something darker, edgier, the phrasing became more jagged and you could feel increased desperation. This wasn’t about technical perfection (with increasing piano sound, Radvanovsky pushed her voice to its limits, to the point that some notes sounded a bit flat and some phrases sounded short on breath), but emotional intensity and she delivered it in spades.
The final Act was hypnotic in its effect as Radvanovsky shifted from one emotional extreme with even greater propulsion. Nothing was more striking than seeing the bite in her sound as she menaced one of her children, knife in hand. Her aria “Del fiero duo” was sung with warmth in its initial phase but also full of vocal contrast that emphasized the duality raging within her. She capped it all with explosive sound as she proclaimed “Atre furie, a me date orsù questo sangue;” this was Radvanovsky at her most vocally imposing.
Physically, there was clearly a direction to explore Medea’s animalistic qualities and her increasing violent nature as her rage took over. She would increasingly crawl around on all fours and at other moments she would slowly snake around the stage. Even in moments where she was not singing, Radvanovsky possessed the stage with her searching gaze, emphasizing Medea’s sense of loneliness and exile. That was contrasted with sharp movements and piercing but gripping glares that kept you zeroed in on her. This was by far Radvanovsky most adventurous and riveting interpretation at the Met Opera in her storied career. Hopefully, it isn’t the last.
The supporting cast was very much up to the task with Ekaterina Gubanova arguably among the standouts. The Russian mezzo undeniably gave her most potent Met turn to date as Neris and it was all crystallized during her opening aria “Solo un pianto con te versare” where she weaved one fluid legato line after another, matching the glorious bassoon playing in the orchestra. Tragedy is built on the idea that the hero of a story has a path toward redemption that is available to them but ultimately spurned. With her gentle and tender singing, Gubanova offered up Neris as Medea’s potential salvation, creating a brief moment of peace and tranquility in the tempestuous opera.
Matthew Polenzani brought the trademark warmth that has served him so well in Mozart operas to the role of Giasone, giving him complexity. Instead of a full-blown jerk, Polenzani’s tender vocalization during “Or che piu non vedro” expressed sincerity in his feelings for Glauce. Even as he gave into Medea during their Act two duet, Polenzani’s gentle interpretation gave you a sense of the feelings that once existed between the two. It made that tragedy all the more palpable and believable. But when called upon to deliver more jagged and violent vocal lines, especially as he rejected Medea throughout the first Act and start of the second Act duet, Polenzani’s round sound took on a more pointed quality.
Meanwhile, Janai Brugger delivered a nervous energy to her Glauce, using her fast vibrato to emphasize the young princess’ anxiety. She delivered a solid rendition of “O Amore, vieni a me!” with swift coloratura lines and pointed high notes.
Michele Pertusi did the job as her father Creonte, delivering a stentorian bass to the harsh king. Christopher Job’s brief appearance as the leader of the King’s guard made more of an impression as he declaimed the arrival of Medea with a steady but brooding bass.
As Glauce’s Handmaidens, Brittany Renee and Sarah Larsen got off to nervous starts (to be fair they sang the first lines of the Met season), but pulled through.
Even if the darkness of the opera might not have been apt for the celebratory mood of opening night, you couldn’t ask for more from the creative team the Met put on its stage. Radvanovsky was in peak form. The supporting cast was solid. The orchestra, under Rizzi, sounded as good as it has in ages. And the production did enough to elucidate the drama while allowing space for the music to come to the fore. “Medea” is the first must-see production of the Met Opera’s 2022-23 season.