Choosing Luigi Cherubini’s rarely-performed Medea to open the 2022-2023 season did not exactly fire up New York audiences who cling to their fading metropolis’s cultural life to sustain the delusion of urban recovery. The occasion showed. Usually a starry, red-carpeted gathering of the great and the good, with stratospheric gala ticket prices and a guaranteed sold-out audience, this year’s opening night was decidedly downscale. The typical gaggle of celebrities, Wall Street titans, and beau monde normally in attendance gave it a miss. The gala surcharges were abandoned prior to the premiere in favor of the Met’s regular price structure. ‘Rush tickets’ at just $25 became available the Friday before this Tuesday performance. And even then, there were empty seats visible in virtually every section of the house.
An unfamiliar work can sometimes provoke attention and interest, even if many of the elite patrons who might have graced the Met on opening night now live happily in Palm Beach. Medea, which entered the world in 1797 in its original French version, Médée, has never before been performed by the company. As a work, it sits awkwardly in the transitional period separating 18th century classicism from the Romanticism that began to coalesce in the early-19th century. Geometric compositional structures permeate the score, which also looks forward to the Sturm und Drang of Beethoven and beyond, to the supercharged emotional intensity found in Weber, Bellini, Verdi, and Wagner. An apt but uncharitable description of Medea’s incongruities might paraphrase Woody Allen’s description of a monster as a being with the body of a crab and the head of a social worker to say that Cherubini’s work sounds like a Mozart opera with a Beethoven overture.
Medea’s equally unbalanced plot retells the murderous mythological aftermath of Jason (here Giasone) and his quest for the Golden Fleece. Prior to the Trojan War, the sorceress Medea, a princess of Colchis, used her magic and cunning to help Giasone win the sacred object and regain his rightful throne, betraying her family and killing and dismembering her brother in the process. She and Giasone settled down in Corinth and had two sons, but Giasone later caddishly dumped her for Glauce, daughter of Corinth’s King Creonte, whom he wins by presenting the Golden Fleece to his new father-in-law.
We see none of this, however. Cherubini’s opera opens almost impossibly deep in medias res with the new couple’s wedding festivities, a happy occasion haunted by undertones of dread over the unreconciled Medea’s wrath. We do not meet Medea for about 40 minutes, but she is all anyone is talking about. When she finally does appear, the soprano portraying her must balance sorrow and rage as she confronts her betrayer and his amour. Ordered to leave, she begs for one more day in town before sending cursed gifts to cause Glauce’s death. As the populace revolts, she then murders her children with Giasone while igniting a giant conflagration that destroys the city’s temple, leaving Giasone in despair.
If that does not sound like an especially promising opera, there is no reason to feel embarrassed. Cherubini did not help Medea’s cause by alienating much of musical Europe in his later capacity as director of the Paris Conservatory, where he was almost universally remembered as a spiteful martinet. The composer Adolphe Adam wryly observed that Cherubini was even-tempered because he was always angry. Hector Berlioz recalled his bile in his influential memoirs and airily pronounced him and his music irrelevant. When Cherubini died in 1842, he was a man many preferred to forget.
A handful of German theaters revived Medea in a shortened version in the years following its Paris premiere, but after that it virtually disappeared from performance. In 1855, the German composer Franz Lachner staged a new German-language production, replacing the opera’s spoken dialogue elements with recitative that he composed in a mid-19th century idiom. This only added to Medea’s disjointed sonic palette. More than half a century later, in 1909, the Italian librettist Carlo Zangarini translated Lachner’s libretto for a production in Milan. In that version, the opera ultimately only found popularity as a vehicle for the famed soprano Maria Callas, who sang it in multiple stage productions and audio recordings between 1953 and 1962. The Met’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin reportedly wanted to stage the French original, but management decided to use the highly adulterated Italian version associated with Callas.
The only reason to favor the Italian version is that the production serves as a vehicle for Sondra Radvanovsky, one of maybe three or four Met sopranos who rate as ‘stars’ following the company’s ill-considered dismissal of Russian superstar singer Anna Netrebko for political reasons in March 2022 (Netrebko denounced the war in Ukraine but failed to denounce Putin to the Met’s satisfaction). Radvanovsky selected Medea at company general manager Peter Gelb’s invitation in 2017, after she enjoyed a modest success in the title role of Bellini’s Norma, which opened that season.
With little other performance history on record or in memory, any singer taking on Medea inevitably invites well-nigh impossible comparisons to Callas. Radvanovsky was as good a candidate as any to accept the challenge. Her singing in heavier Verdi parts, as Puccini’s Tosca, and in the leading roles in Donizetti’s trilogy of operas set in Tudor England won her a strong following, though critical comment was far from universal in its praise. The voice has long showcased an appealing strength, albeit with a steely, metallic quality that did not appeal to everyone. But after Norma, another famed Callas part, the temptation of Medea was probably unavoidable.
Alas, the pitfalls proved too much. In the first two acts, which unroll with only a brief pause in this production, Radvanovsky was uneven, with warbling top notes that recalled Callas’s troubled late career more than her triumphant prime. Singing a character cascading with strong negative emotion is certainly difficult, but Radvanovsky paced in a way that suggested more caution than a woman filled with murderous wrath would likely have. In a city that used to ask the clichéd question “Where’s the outrage?” at the news of every street or subway atrocity, I spent much of this performance asking “Where’s the rage?” It was only in the final act that Radvanovsky emerged with greater discipline, rendering the bravura aria “Dei tuoi figli” with a focus that got closer to capturing Medea’s sociopathic malignancy.
The remaining cast was filled by stalwart Met singers, though they had few chances to display much virtuosity. Almost everything they do reacts to Medea. As Giasone, tenor Matthew Polenzani’s main task is to put on an air of bravado while his bitter ex harangues him. He did that as well as any tenor could. Janai Brugger’s Glauce disappears from the opera after her initial confrontation with Medea, really only returning to die as a result of her witchcraft. She, too, performed the reactive role with as much distinction as she could muster. The stentorian Italian basso Michele Pertusi’s Creonte oversaw the discord with authority. The mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova hails from Moscow. It is unclear whether she has denounced Putin, but she was a delight to hear in the role of Neris, Medea’s confidante. Carlo Rizzi’s conducting read the score with a workmanlike attitude that did little to build tension.
This new production is the Met’s twelfth commission for the Scottish director Sir David McVicar. His work for the company now exceeds that of the late Franco Zeffirelli, who created eleven productions for the Met between 1964 and 1998. McVicar’s work, however, has been compressed into only the last decade. Like most of McVicar productions here and elsewhere, his Medea relies on drab colors and intrusive walls. Corinth is suggested by rust colored barriers that block off much of the stage. They open in the first act to reveal a sumptuous dining table for Giasone and Glauce’s wedding feast. In the final act, it reveals the inside of the temple where Medea has killed her children and started a fire suggested by weakly projected flames. A slanted mirror reflects the action (and audience), but it is anyone’s guess what this not very unusual innovation was meant to add. Prior to Medea’s act of horror, Radvanovsky uses the opened space for a maniacal dance with a dagger. The effect, however, was more comic than tragic.
McVicar favored a milieu that suggest the approximate time of Cherubini’s composition—the mysterious Gothic decades of the early-19th century that gave us ghosts and vampires and Frankenstein. Doey Lüthi’s dark and disheveled costumes made Radvanovsky look like a wronged woman who threw herself into the sea, survived, and crawled back out again with no time to freshen up. The look did little to generate any sense that she was the “empowered woman” claimed in the program notes, assuming that women’s empowerment follows from stalking and infanticide.