Lamentation and Retribution

Jesse Simon
viernes, 1 de diciembre de 2023
Sellars, Médée © 2023 by Ruth Walz Sellars, Médée © 2023 by Ruth Walz
Berlin, domingo, 19 de noviembre de 2023. Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Charpentier: Médée. Peter Sellars, director. Frank Gehry, sets. Magdalena Kožená (Médée), Reinoud Van Mechelen (Jason), Luca Tittoto (Créon), Carolyn Sampson (Créuse), Jehanne Amzal (Cléone, L’Amour), Gyula Orendt (Oronte), Markéta Cukrová (Nérine, Bellone), Gonzalo Quinchahual (Arcas, La Jalousie), and Dionysios Avgerinos (La Vengeance). Freiburger Barockorchester. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

For the past five years, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden have devoted a portion of each November to Barocktage, a celebration of operas from the earliest days of the form to the opera seria that predominated throughout the eighteenth century. Each year has featured at least one high-profile new production, often involving celebrated directors and lavish sets, and invariably featuring first-rate singers and renowned period performance ensembles. This year the rarity on offer was Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée; and while the staging of Peter Sellars brought the classical tragedy into the twenty-first century, it was the opera itself that proved to be the star of the evening. The cast, led by Magdalena Kožená’s dramatic reading of the title character, and the Freiburger Barockorchester under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle made a strong case for the singular charms of Charpentier’s operatic world.

If Charpentier’s fame rests primarily on his sacred works, he was no stranger to the theatre, and in his most ambitious foray into opera he teamed up with Thomas Corneille (younger brother of Pierre) for an update of the Medea of Euripedes. The work, written as a royal entertainment, was composed in the 1790s, when opera had not yet hardened into the long sequences of showpiece arias that would become the norm in the following century; but if the form and structure of Médée were very much of their time, the work was notable for its gradual tightening of the drama, propelled by music of great fluidity and expressive power. What started in the first two acts as pleasant and mannered soon deepened into something far richer.

As with the opera itself, the staging took a while to hit its stride. In the spirit of conspicuous production values, the evening boasted sets by Frank Gehry, who has previously taken time out from his day job as one of the world’s most prominent architects to contribute stage designs to the Staatsoper’s production of Orfeo ed Euridice. For Médée, Mr Gehry created two large crumpled structures, simultaneously diaphanous and brittle, and a group of three flossy clouds, which looked as though they had been created from finely-shredded sheet metal; the latter were suspended by wires and moved up and down seemingly at random throughout the evening.

Charpentier: Médée. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Peter Sellars, director. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, November 2023. © 2023 by Ruth Walz.Charpentier: Médée. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Peter Sellars, director. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, November 2023. © 2023 by Ruth Walz.

While the sets were pleasingly textural and undeniably successful as works of abstract sculpture, it was apparent that director Peter Sellars would have been just as happy without them. At his best Mr Sellars can achieve much with almost nothing in the way of sets, props or costumes, delving deep into patiently stylised movement and physical expression to elaborate the dramatic essence of a given work. On this evening Mr Sellars set the action mostly at the front of the stage – apart from, and seemingly unconnected to Mr Gehry’s sculptures – and set about reducing the work to a drama of primal confrontations. At first Mr Sellars’ style seemed an odd fit with Charpentier’s genial manner, and throughout the first two acts it was far easier to be intellectually appreciative than emotionally engaged. But as the music and drama started to intensify during the third act, so did Mr Sellars’ approach begin to yield greater rewards, and the final two acts especially seemed to pass in a heightened state of trance-like focus.

Despite his penchant for minimalism, Mr Sellars used military costumes and two rectangles of construction-site fence to locate a distinctly twenty-first century relevance in the ancient story. (His vision of Medea as modern-day refugee was further assisted by some freely-translated surtitles, which made liberal use of such topical terms as ‘asylum’, ‘immigrant’ and ‘deportation’). Yet if the image of Médée awaiting her fate in a government detention centre, separated from her children, and causing havoc for the populist, anti-immigration ruler of Corinth gave the staging its modern resonance, her gradual emergence as an instrument of terrible retribution was thrillingly timeless.

Charpentier: Médée. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Peter Sellars, director. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, November 2023. © 2023 by Ruth Walz.Charpentier: Médée. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Peter Sellars, director. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, November 2023. © 2023 by Ruth Walz.

The journey of Médée from self-sacrifice to furious revenge is well delineated in both Corneille’s text and Charpentier’s music, but it was the intensely dramatic performance of Magdalena Kožená that gave the central character her emotional breadth. Although she had been a strong presence in the first act, bearing Jason’s lies with a selflessness bordering on desperate, it was the third act that served as the pivot of the evening. After Jason’s final farewell came a solo scene of lamentation in which Ms Kožená, without resorting to overstatement, suggested that the very axis of the drama had shifted; although the news of Jason’s impending marriage to Créuse would not reach her until the following scene – and was greeted with appropriate vehemence – it was the introspective lament that emerged most clearly as the moment in the tragedy from which there was no turning back. And while there was suitable fire in her invocation to the spirits that ended the third act, it was the poised figure of the final acts, systematically destroying Créon and Jason with lofty clarity, who made the greatest impression.

Charpentier: Médée. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Peter Sellars, director. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, November 2023. © 2023 by Ruth Walz.Charpentier: Médée. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Peter Sellars, director. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, November 2023. © 2023 by Ruth Walz.

If there was no other figure who dominated the latter half of the drama to the same extent, the Jason of Reinoud Van Mechelen was excellent throughout the evening, offering a consistent balance of projective power and expressive line; Luca Tittoto brought crisp tone and articulate manner to Créon; and Carolyn Sampson provided the evening with a delicate, elegant Créuse. Yet the strength of the evening’s vocal ensemble lay less in individual performances than in the near-constant series of duets that formed the foundation of the opera: the scenes between Jason and Médée in the first, third and fifth acts, Médée and Créon in the second and fourth acts, Créuse and Jason in the second act and Médée and Oronte in the third, both propelled the drama and gave the evening its most rewarding moments of vocal brilliance.

Under Sir Simon Rattle, the Freiburger Barockorchester delivered a performance of forceful advocacy. The superb continuo of lutes, harpsichords and bass viol were perhaps the most prominent group within the ensemble, tasked with accompanying nearly all of the monologues and duets; however the full ensemble, which also included strings, woodwinds (mostly oboes and flutes), and a quintet of recorders, gave textural richness to the opera’s increasingly expressive music. Sir Simon, clearly inspired by the score, moved the action forward with a sense of purpose while never failing to draw our attention to the work’s numerous moments of unconventional beauty, notably the introduction to Médée’s third-act lament, the mesmerising orchestral interlude preceding Créon’s madness, and the lucid strings that accompanied Créuse’s death.

The world of seventeenth-century opera can seem dauntingly foreign to the uninitiated, and several of the Staatsoper’s Barocktage productions have leaned heavily on spectacle as a way of making these distant works accessible to twenty-first century audiences. While Médée was unquestionably a product of its time and place, the flexibility of its music and the clarity of its structure revealed a work that required little in the way of modern intervention to function as a compelling drama; it may have taken an act or two to build up the necessary momentum, but once it hit its stride, it moved towards its denouement with the swift, unstoppable force that powers all great tragedy.

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