Pinchgut Opera 2022 Review: Medée

A Fantastic Exploration of Charpentier’s Unique Masterwork

By Gordon Williams
(Photo credit: Cassandra Hannagan)

In a podcast for Pinchgut Opera’s latest production, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s opera “Médée,” Artistic Director Erin Helyard describes the first interpreter of the title role in 1693, Marie le Rochois, as “the greatest actress in all of France.” “Actress.” Not singer?

But perhaps the designation provides a clue as to how to appreciate this early French baroque opera, given its first Australian performance conducted by Helyard at Sydney’s Angel Place Recital Hall on Dec 1 – it’s a drama enhanced by musical proportions. We might benefit by assessing the success of any production through its level of dramatic intensity which this production had in abundance, thrown into relief by the spareness of the theatrical interpretation.

Charpentier’s “Médée” is based on the familiar Greek tale (via Euripedes) of the sorceress Medea’s revenge on her unfaithful lover Jason by killing their two children and dispatching her rival for his love, the princess of Corinth, Créuse, with a poisoned robe, ostensibly a gift.

Charpentier’s libretto is by Thomas Corneille, brother of the more famous Pierre, whose own play about Medea presents us at first with Jason telling Pollux (who doesn’t figure in brother Thomas’s version) how his affections have changed. Corneille also differs from Euripedes who begins his version with Medea’s nurse wishing that Jason’s ship had never sailed near their home in Colchis, in search of the golden fleece. But the main part of Thomas’s plot begins with Médée’s confidante, Nérine, trying to reassure the sorceress that her fears for Jason’s faithlessness are unfounded.

Arguably, such an opening enlarges Médée’s emotional arc giving us the vulnerable Médée before the monstrous murderer emerges – an opportunity taken in the initial fretfulness and anxiety that we saw in mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby’s undertaking of the title role and the touching image of her nestling her anxious head in confidante Nérine’s lap.

Corneille’s version is constructed in classical style, scenes marked by the entrance or exit of characters. Judging by the libretto you’d expect this to be visually a series of two- or three-handers, with occasional chorus and climactic ensembles, but director Justin Way (whose other credits include work at Royal Opera House where he was head of the staff directors’ department, Sydney Theatre Company and Madrid’s Teatro Real) made use of additional personnel such as troops, ‘palace guards’, the public…to enliven the stage picture. The chorus was Cantillation, Pinchgut’s regular ensemble.

Thomas’s text is generally in the classic French meter of Alexandrines, 12-syllable lines, eg. JASON: “Que je serais heureux, si j’étais moins aimé!” They’re not the sort of pliable brief lines familiar from later Italian opera perhaps, but Charpentier manages these long-breathed thoughts and words with admirable fluency and flexibility. One of the first things I noted down in the darkened theatre was the skillful integration of metric shifts in the work of baritone Andrew Finden as Oronte, who comes to Corinth thinking he’s going to be Créuse’s husband, but is only going to be used by Corinth’s king Creon (bass-baritone Adrian Tamburini), for his military usefulness (in Act one there is a nice bit of business, by the way, with the two signing a treaty at a foldout table, as if out in the field).

Intensity Over Gratuity

In Way’s hands, Pinchgut’s production gave us intensity rather than gratuitous display or pure entertainment-value. There was a certain severity but also an admirable dignity and clarity. We saw the children Médée will soon murder (Tom Hylkema, covered on opening night by Chiara Schmitz, and Rhys James Hankey) complete in school uniforms; nothing in the libretto promised that we would. And there was a telling creepiness when La Vengeance and La Jalousie (bass-baritone Philip Barton and tenor Louis Hurley respectively) appeared, looking like Medea herself.

Pinchgut’s trimming of the original text was judicious and smart. As it was, this “Médée” lasted three hours. Imagine how much longer it would have been with the original Prologue, a homage to Louis XIV, the monarch at the time of the work’s premiere. And scenes were deleted from Act four that a modern audience reared on cinema’s economic storytelling does not miss. Who needs Créuse’s confidante Cléone telling Jason how beautiful Créuse looks in her robe (Act four scene one) since we then see her and Jason comments, “Ah, what beauty! what new grace!” – astonished by this unprepared-for vision. An added advantage: the filleting of Cléone’s part thrust attention on her important monologue in Act five scene three (“Je vien vous annoncer le plus grand des malheur”), recounting bad news (Creon’s suicide) delivered most effectively (directly and simply) in this production by Sydney soprano Anna Fraser in this small but critical part.

Broadly delineating or mapping the plot also explains the color scheme of designer Charles Davis, beginning simply and maybe even bleakly with a range of blacks, white and grays (sets and costumes surrounding the single image – of Creon’s bust) and building to the tight gold dress of the alluring Italian Woman (soprano Maia Anderson) by the end of Act two, when Cupid (Brianna Louwen) exercises his sway over the plot. There was an ironic return to this golden resplendence at the end, as the murderer Médée exulted in her impunity.

Minus blatant spectacle we could focus on the intensity of the exchanges – and the impressive musical characterizations.

Finely-Detailed Performances

The production was aided by finely-detailed performances; and, of course, there seems to be a lot of motivational detail in the text. In a YouTube interview, soprano Cathy-Di Zhang, L’Amour in last year’s “Platée”, describes her character Créuse as “the ultimate mean girl.” Perhaps there’s an argument for that view and it would fit with the production’s view of Médée as victim as much as perpetrator, but for me Zhang embodied an unexpected vulnerability in a rival for Jason’s heart who was out of her depth. Granted, there seemed to be a predatory insinuating quality for example in the way she encroached on Jason’s notes in their Act two scene five duet, but the secret wave to the kids in her first scene came across as suitably gauche, while we could still sympathize with the heart-stealer inflamed with the poison Médée has embedded in the robe.

But each character and their interpreter outlined a journey we could follow. Early on, bass-baritone Adrian Tamburini provided a wonderfully smug portrayal of King Creon who would like nothing better than for his daughter Créuse to win Jason’s hand. Even his fur-lapelled coat conveyed aloof self-satisfaction but there was a chilling haunted tone in his conflicted late number, “Black spirits, what do you want from me?”

“Quoi” exclaimed Michael Petruccelli forcefully as Médée accuses Jason of succumbing to Créuse’s attractions, conveying a palpable indignation as he went on “Do you suspect me?” By opera’s end, though, his almost animalistic cry of grief harrowingly conveyed the scale of tragedy that has befallen Jason. From a musical point of view, Petruccelli’s ringing tenor was always a delight to listen to. Arguably he possesses the perfect voice for making clear the text of an operatic work in which the music and words are nearly equal in importance. His monologue “Que me peut demander la gloire…” approaches the musical shape of a discrete aria but his varying of the opening line on each of its appearances was also almost acting detail.

In the smaller roles, Maia Andrews’ coloratura was a refreshing change from the essentially syllabic setting of the opera, while Chloe Lankshear’s Nérine exuded a warmth that signified that this Médée had at least one person in her corner.

As to be expected UK-based Australian soprano, Catherine Carby, garnered most of our attention in the title role – vulnerable and fearful in her first scene with counsel, Nérine, and growing more and more formidable on each subsequent appearance.

A surtitle failure after interval on opening night hindered my ability to assess her Act four monologues (not being a French speaker) but Pinchgut allowed me to see the opera on a subsequent evening and as I listened to her powerfully evoking Fury in Act four scene five (“Venez, fureur, je m’abandonne à vous”) and the wonderful tremulousness of her Act Five self-horror – “Ah, you are too savage to be a mother,”  I was able to verify the admiration I had formed in the first three acts – from the speech-like contempt of her denunciation of “l’infidèle Jason” (Act three scene four), to the almost-spitting contempt for gods who stand by and witness Jason’s treason.

Erin Helyard in his 24th Pinchgut production (the program booklet contained such statistics for each principal and crew) really deserves immense credit for the constantly enlivening detail of this realization, promoting the musical interest of the score or realizing the emotional sub-currents that informed this sung-play – from the enticing spring of the overture to the hushed urgent movement under Nérine’s reassurances; from the nicely-pinged low note heralding an instant darkening of mood for the segue into Act Two, to the swift, no-nonsense wrapping up of the first half (necessary perhaps because the Act two finale had garnered enthusiastic applause, and then the show had gone on for another act before the break).

My attention was focused on the stage where the dramatist would have wanted it to be, but I could be arrested by musical details such as the cloud of Helyard’s harpsichord accompanying Creon and Médée’s Act two scene one contretemps when Creon suggests that maybe Médée should leave Corinth: “It’s time to speak honestly…” – she upsets his people.

The second half built to an appropriate climax. At the end, after Médée has exacted her awful revenge, and the stage is littered with the bodies of Creon, Créuse and the two children, Jason swells with vengeance to “go all the way to Hell to punish you…” Carby appeared calmly in Angel Place’s balcony. Médée doesn’t fly off on the back of a dragon as Thomas Corneille’s original stage directions specify (nor did we see Corneille’s Valhalla-like destruction of Corinth), but, lit by Lighting Designer Damien Cooper from beneath, Carby’s shadow crept up over the Recital Hall’s ceiling, as if her outstretched hands enveloped us in her malevolent victory.


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