I went to the English National Opera on Friday evening to see David McVicar’s brand new production of Charpentier’s Medea, with Sarah Connolly making a star turn in the title role. I really, really wanted to like it. I have loved some other works produced by McVicar. Connolly is one of my favourite singers. This production takes the drama out of both ancient Greek and Louis XIV’s court and into the 1940s, a fascinating, complex period in history. There was so much to recommend it, and yet I found myself not entirely sold on it. Early reviews seem divided, with Guardian rewarding it five stars, while Mark Berry of Boulezian has little positive to say. This comes at the heel of ENO’s new Traviata, which similarly divided opinions. The sense I get from many of the critical reviews is that many people feel they have already seen most of the ideas brought to stage, sometimes so many times that what once shocked now only looks tired and tedious, and here too it felt like the director had re-dressed a bunch of old ideas.
Médée premiered in December 1693, and inexplicably closed already in March 1694; it was a critical success at its time, and apparently impressed the Sun King himself – possibly because Charpentier chose to open it with a prologue celebrating his majesty. McVicar has chosen to drop this prologue, but it is not the only problematic part of the opera; both the first and the second acts end with extended dance sequences and the drama here more or less halts to stop – McVicar fills the stage with dancers in cabaret costumes and p0rny sailor uniforms, with paparazzi and nightclub singers, and at the end of Act II, with a giant, pink, glittering model Hurricane standing in for the Cupid’s chariot (poor Creuse has to take her seat in the cockpit by climbing up the wing in her high heels – I was as terrified for her as she was by the look of it). It’s all very clever, I’m sure, and very entertaining, but the first word to come to my mind when the curtain went down was “gimmicky”. “Overdone” was the second. These are purely matters of taste, but for mine this staging was too fiddly, full of moving and sometimes noisy parts – I was rather bothered by small things like the typist in the first act, just loud enough to distract the recitative. I also hate it when directors pummels me on the head with concept – while the rest of scenes are filled with people and props, Medea occupies an almost empty space in her scenes. When in act three she summons the demons, they take form of two men made up to look like they have been skinned, wearing silk negligees similar to Medea’s (I get it, they represent Medea’s darkest emotions stripped bare – now roll on the floor for maximum effect).
The set and costumes were beautiful and the stage beautifully lit, and what McVicar did with the main characters was mostly intelligent and intuitive. I enjoyed the portrayal of Jason as a middle-aged officer lusting after the hot, manipulative young woman, while Medea as his wife was, before the madness took over, the very picture of a strong, no-nonsense woman who has made sacrifices for her husband and is just starting to have regrets; Connolly took the character beautifully through these stages from cool respectability to triumphant, cold rage, making the character and her motivations understandable if not sympathetic. Connolly’s voice took some time to warm (Medea is off the stage for most of the first two acts), but when it did, her singing was sublime and sublimely powerful – so extraordinary is she, that it almost feels unfair to the rest of the cast.
Things finally fell in place for me in Act IV; the showdown between Creon and Medea was wonderfully eerie as she summoned the spirits in the shape of Creuse to taunt and seduce the king, who is losing not only his grip of power but of reality, and later confronted both her husband and his lover. The music is at odds with the drama during Creuse’s death scene – the accompaniment to her burning to death (how did they do that?) is rather gentle, and a far away from the powerful notes given to Medea as she reveals to Jason she has killed their sons in a final act of revenge. I found the choir very good, and my ear certainly isn’t sophisticated enough to pick up on the issues mentioned by Berry – the orchestra sounded fine enough to me. It’s worth a try, but not everybody’s cup of tea.