The ENO’s UK premiere of Charpentier’s Medea is a wonderful mix of new and old — refined but robust, simple yet extravagant. For regular opera goers, this may not be in line with the usual, but for those on the more occasional side of attending, you’ll find it sparkles with a fresh new spin on an otherwise ancient tale of classic Greek mythology.
Most have heard the revengeful story of Medea – her husband meets a beautiful younger woman, younger woman is already set to marry a young prince, wife (Medea) becomes jealous, husband makes deal with noble father of younger woman (a king in this case) to marry her despite the existing obligation, noble father exiles Medea to remote land, and with all Greek tragedies, Medea plots to avenge her husband’s betrayal. Although the myth originates as far back as 3rd Century BC, it is remarkable just how contemporary the story feels.
ENO’s production, however, is a far cry from anything that French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier might have envisaged when he wrote the opera in 1693. To start with, it has been translated to English with English surtitles (which sometimes feels a bit sing-songy, but for the most part works). The stage has been modernised, complete with a mirrored space that adapts from Medea's room in banishment to the more stylised ballroom set to emulate a 1940s grand party where champagne flows and soldiers frivolously dance. The costumes must also be mentioned as they give the audience a sense of an opulent time, from the men's tailor made uniforms to the women's glitzy gowns, in particular the eye-catching (almost blinding) sequin dress that Creusa wears in the final act.
Director, Sir David McVicar (who received knighthood at the Queen’s Jubilee), nicely keeps some of the genuine elements of the opera as well. Conductor Christian Curnyn, a period performance specialist, applies highly appropriate variations to Charpentier's own score, based here on an edition by Clifford Bartlett. While it can jar at times with the updated sets and choreography, the authenticity is still refreshing to hear. The choice of Sarah Connolly as Medea feels very true to how Charpentier would have seen the character. A seasoned regular at ENO, Connolly is bold and brash, letting the rest of the cast support her as needed. Katherine Manley's soprano voice is perfectly Barbie-like for Creusa and Jeffrey Francis who plays Medea's husband, belts out impressive notes as a tenor. Nonetheless, it must be said it's hard to believe someone as beautiful as Manley (Creusa) would fall for the older Francis (Jason), but his voice makes up for it...
Medea is not for the faint-hearted. Gasps and tears could be heard throughout the latter part of the show, where we see demonic ghosts and spells, resulting in a cataclysmic fury of chaos. But this is another reason why McVicar's adaptation works. Medea proves to be both an audio and visual spectacle (whether you’re an opera aficionado or not). Just don't look at your watch...3 hours and 15 minutes at times feels a bit lengthy.
Running until Saturday 16 March. Performance starts at 7pm, Show on Saturday 16 March at 3pm. Running time 3 hours 15 mins. Tickets £19 - £95.