Review – Medea (English National Opera, Wednesday 20 February 2013)
Medea – Sarah Connolly
Jason – Jeffrey Francis
Creon – Brindley Sherratt
Creusa/Phantom – Katherine Manley
Orontes – Roderick Williams
Nerina – Rhian Lois
Cleonis/Cupid – Aoife O’Sullivan
Arcas – Oliver Dunn
Corinthian/Jealousy – John McMunn
Italian Woman/Phantom II – Sophie Junker
Director – David McVicar
Designer – Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Choreographer – Lynne Page
Chorus Master – Jörg Andresen
Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Conductor – Christian Curnyn
English National Opera is a company that operates at both extremes of the performance spectrum.
To put it bluntly. Their productions are either incredibly good and thought-provoking. Or completely dreadful and ill-conceived. Although in those cases they are saved from complete ignominy from the general quality of the casting.
With their current production of Medea they are off the spectrum of incredibly good. Excellent. Award-winning. And I would even hazard to say a potential long-runner.
ENO would do well to consider building on their French baroque credentials based on this production and their previous production of Castor and Pollux.
David McVicar has matured from being the enfant terrible of opera directors with great ideas with great ideas to a great opera director with a great vision full of sharp ideas.
But first, the cast.
Charpentier’s music moves seamlessly from air to ‘recitatif’ – through composed or not – and therefore has few main numbers as it were. Therefore attention to the detail to the music and a keen eye to the shift between the two is required. And all the singers keenly demonstrated both.
It was a strongly knit cast without a weak link but clearly this is a production that will most be remembered for the tour-de-force of Sarah Connolly as Medea. This role could have been composed for her. I saw her recently perform scenes from French Baroque operas and this is clearly a genre that suits her voice and temperament.
It is clear – as she said in an interview – that completely trusts McVicar but they obviously share common ground when it comes to developing a character. It goes without saying that musically this was an incredibly distinguished and passionate performance. Sarah Connolly is in possession of a lustrous voice that can switch from the lightest, most delicate of tone and colour to an instrument of incredible force and volume and never was a word dropped or muffled. Witness for example her scenes with Nerina and better still the scene when she wrestles with killing her own sons for example. And it was also a subtle yet masterful transition from loving wife to spurned, vengeful woman. Her acting was incredibly convincing not only in the most obvious scenes but for example in her scene with Jason before her descent into revenge and as well as those scenes with Creon and Creusa.
As the King’s daughter-cum-starlet, Katherine Manley’s bright and full soprano was perfect and glittered like her ill-fated gown. Her closing air – as she lay dying – was sung with great poise but each of her scenes was beautifully and eloquently sung even when she had an inadvertent wardrobe malfunction. Katherine Manley is clearly someone to keep an eye on.
Jeffrey Francis as Jason was a pleasant find. His light, crisp yet sweet-toned tenor was a delight and a good fit for Charpentier’s music as well as with the rest of the ensemble. Particularly impressive was his love duet with Creusa.
The remaining warriors – Brindley Sherratt’s Creon and Roderick Williams’ Orontes – completed the very strong ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Roderick Williams as Pollux in Kosky’s production at ENO last year and here he returned with an equally strong portrayal of Orontes, displaying the same strong, darkly hued baritone with excellent diction. And Brindley Sherratt was superb as Creon. His resonant bass dealt comfortably with the delicacy of Charpentier’s writing.
Special mention too of Rhian Lois as Nerina, Aoife O’Sullivan as Cleonis and Cupid, Oliver Dunn’s Arcas and Sophie Junker’s Italian Woman for the strength and intelligence of their performances.
And of course the ENO chorus sang not only with conviction but with passion. The chorus revealing the death of Creon and Orontes was particularly impressive.
Christian Curnyn led the entire ensemble with great verve and attention to the music. There was an equal balance of rhythmic vitality and beautifully phrased suavity combined with a greater attention to the orchestra colour of Charpentier’s score than I found in his Rameau last year.
And so to the production.
The production was built around a combination of McVicar’s motifs but didn’t suffer because of it. The set could have been borrowed from his Covent Garden Figaro for example, and he maximised the size of the Coliseum’s stage – sometimes its own handicap – by focusing some energy on the activity surrounding the main characters without it being distracting.
The setting was – with its Wrens manoeuvring armies around a map and the costumes – reminiscent of the Second World War and there was a general air of decadence to the entire production. Ms Manley may have inadvertently lost her underwear in the second act but it added to the subtle hint of loucheness – almost decadence – at the court of Creon. His own desire for his daughter made clear by the way he touched her early in the opera, was heightened when the Phantoms in the penultimate act are all doppelgangers of Creusa. Similarly Cupid’s night club scene was smart and witty but again managed to deliver and underlying sense of menace.
The scene when Medea calls upon her demons was brilliantly done, and McVicar spared none of the savagery as Connolly cut her own skin and while I was somewhat at a loss with the shaved-headed, red painted male demons in shift dresses and high heels, the dancing in this scene was brutally effective.
Indeed for the most part the choreography – always a difficult thing to integrate into baroque opera and ENO’s dismal Julius Caesar is testimony to – was smart and efficient. When it didn’t add to the narrative, as it did in the aforementioned scene, it was hearty and jovial, which was no bad thing.
Medea shows what ENO is capable of when everything comes together – an excellent cast led by a superb conductor under the auspices of a smart and intelligent director. It’s a shame that John Berry dismisses the idea of cinema broadcasts. This production would – I am sure – be successful on the big screen because it has everything – a great story committed to stage with great singing, marvellous playing and brilliant direction.
Definitely worth seeing if you haven’t already purchased a ticket.
And the second of two very clever and enjoyable French baroque productions by ENO. I do hope that John Berry realises that here is repertoire that is waiting to be explored and will decisively stake a claim to this genre in the capital.
Can we hope for a more new productions? Indeed perhaps some Lully?