(Credit: Javier del Real)
Teatro Real opened its 2023-24 season with Cherubini’s masterpiece “Medea.” The opera had a great success and was very popular in Europe during the XIX century, where it was usually performed in German or Italian and with a newly written recitative instead of the original French dialogues between arias and scenes. “Medea” was rarely performed during the XX century, apart from the several productions which had Maria Callas in the title role; a character that would become one of her signature roles. The opera opened the MET 2022-23 season, in the Italian version, with Sondra Radvanovsky in the tragic leading role. Teatro Real presented a new production with the French critical edition from Heiko Cullmann and recitatives from Alan Curtis (1934-2015).
Paco Azorin’s Powerful Interpretation
Stage director and set designer Paco Azorin is the most prolific Spanish director today. He has more than 250 titles in his curriculum (Opera, Zarzuela, theatre…). The set presented a big iron vertical construction, with a metal staircase that went up to the very top. A central lift was used by the characters during the opera and a rectangular platform that slide up and down using the external vertical iron beams as tracks. This monstrous structure made of metal beams and iron fences resembled the industrial era. The rest of the space was an earthy and empty. The sides of the stage were closed with two big towers full of lights. Using this environment, Azorin presented multiple layers and interpretations of the opera, searching a constant approach to the actual times. His staging is full of resources: an actress that portrays Medea’s conscience and three acrobats accompanying Medea in her fury outbreaks.
Changing the costumes from the Greek era period of the original source, to today’s uniforms of soldiers, Medea’s children appeared inside the auditorium. There is constant action taking place on stage. Every single line has a clear purpose and direction. The current rate of children killed by their parents was projected at some point on one screen. The message of “children rights” ties together with the closeness of this opera’s plot to our own society today. Azorin’s idea of presenting Medea’s nightmare, in the third act prelude, of aggressively and repeatedly killing her children showed the extreme violence of a cruel reality.
The final scene had a line of real fire, which crossed the stage from side to side. The smoke and projections of fire were very effective and theatrical. Azorin is a “theatrical monster.” His use of multiple resources, along with his deep directing of the singers and his purpose of making opera accessible, effectively engages the audience.
Maria Agresta sang the title role Medea. The Italian soprano has been introducing lirico spinto roles to her repertoire in recent years. However, for this role she offered a lyrical and tragic interpretation of the heroine. Medea is a hard role due to its length and vocal range concentrating in the center but with constant jumps into the low and higher registers. Medea’s emotions are also strong. Agresta chose to cover the lower register, with barely any use of her chest voice. She kept her voice in a high position in the middle register and was able to attack the several B flats, and B naturals of the role easily.
She sang her first aria, “Vous voyez de vos fils la mère infortunée,” with lyricism portraying Medea’s pathetic begging state and sadness. Agresta kept a light and fluid vocal line. She sang an exquisite diminuendo in B flat. But, she changed to fury and anger in her subsequent duet with Giasone delivering a showcase of strong B naturals. Her long second act scene with Creonte and the choir was sung with power and determination. Her recitative, “Ils mourront. Mais quel coup, quel art assez cruel, “where she debates seriously about murdering her own children was sang with fury and doubt. Agresta delivered strong ringing B flats.
Her third act aria, “Du trouble affreux qui me dévore,” was extremely moving by the contrast of strong B flats and whispered mezza voce. She reflected the doubts and pain of the character. She also offered a strong personification of the dolent demigoddess, although it appeared sometimes that she was pacing and holding herself back through her voice and acting in order to preserve herself and be able to sing for the whole evening. She did not offer the strong dramatic portrayal that Callas imprinted on the character. And, Callas is mostly the only referent in this role. But, I think Agresta’s interpretation showed different layers of this complex character and she was very wise to adapt this role to her own vocal abilities.
Italian tenor Enea Scala performed the role of Medea’s unfaithful husband, Giasone. Scala possesses a warm and dark timbre in his middle register with a marked fast vibrato. His opening recitative shows how the rest of the role is written, constantly navigating the passaggio zone around G followed by a quick and easy ascensions up to high A naturals. Scala has the range and can sustain the tessitura easily. But, his voice sounded strangled and guttural. His high notes were too open from G sharp upwards. They were strident and lacked projection. It’s true that most of the role is central, and Scala’s middle register is sonorous and round. But he lacked strength in the lower register and therefore could not imprint vocal weight on the character.
His opening aria, “Eloigné pour jamais d’une épouse cruelle” was a clear example of the unevenness of his timbre and the lack consistency in the lower and higher register. Although he effortlessly dealt with the constant ascensions to A naturals. Scala coronated his duet with Medea at the end of act one with a B natural which was barely audible alongside Agresta’s strong high note. The qualities of his voice could not portray all of the heroic dramatism that this role vocally requires. It was written in the program that he sings a baritenor’s repertoire. But, that amazes me because a baritenor demands a solid and strong middle register with top ringing extreme high notes. Scala’s voice, which is probably artificially darkened, sounded too light for this role.
Bass Jongmin Park performed the role of Creonte. He sang his aria “Dieux et Déesses tutélaires” with exquisite mezza voce and long legato lines. Although his voice lacks projection around his high D and E as he covers the sound. But, he sounded heroic and strong for his subsequent scene with the choir after Medea’s entrance, coronating the end with a top ringing F sharp. His interpretation of his second act duet with Medea was authoritarian.
Nancy Fabiola Herrera sang the supportive role of Neris. She is delegated to spare lines, except for her second act aria, “Ah! nos peines seront communes,” which she sang with tenderness and a fluid legato vocal line. She posses a dark and warm timbre with notable volume. Although she opted for covering the lower range of her voice, unloading the lower register and focusing on the lyricism of the aria.
Spanish soprano lirico-leggera Sara Blanch portrayed the small but important role of Giasone’s fiancé, Dirce. She has a warm instrument with an even timbre throughout her whole register. She sang with an exquisite vocal line and depurated coloratura during her opening aria, “Hymen! viens dissiper une vaine frayeur.” Her voice is round and strong in the middle register, where most of the aria is written, but with crystalline bright ascensions to the high range, including B naturals and high Cs. Blanch interpolated an effortlessly high D before the coloratura section, which was clean and precise. Unfortunately, her role was delegated to a few spare lines in the next two acts. It is a real luxury to have such a great artist in such a minor role.
Baroque and classic period expertise Ivor Bolton was in charge of the baton. He really shows his mastery in this repertoire, as he could extract all the drama from Cherubini’s score and maintain wonderful moments of tension. This is not easy to do in classical repertoire. Ivor Bolton attacked the overture with determination and dramatism, sonorous fortissimos, and a lively frenzied tempo. The orchestra and chorus of Teatro Real sounded brilliant, dramatic, and strong. Placing the packed choir at the edge of the stage for the final intervention, which was probably Azorin’s idea, was very effective. They sounded extremely powerful.
Teatro Real’s “Medea” is a modern production of Cherubini’s forgotten masterpiece, focusing on the psychology of the characters and similarities within our own society. Agresta and Bolton were the absolute protagonists of the evening and strongly rewarded by an enthusiastic audience.