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Medea – ENO at the Coliseum, London

Composer: Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Libretto: Thomas Corneille

Director: David McVicar

Reviewer: Jonathan Baz

[rating:4.5]

The English National Opera’s production of Charpentier’s Medea has been eagerly awaited and David McVicar’s heavily stylised interpretation played to a packed Coliseum. This mythical Greek tragedy, with its horrific climax so well known in the canon, proving to be a fable that when told by such talented performers, can still shock.

The plot is undoubtedly complex: Medea, married to Jason of Argonaut fame and the mother of his two sons, finds her husband’s desire waning for her as he falls for the beautiful Creusa. Set against a tangled but essential backdrop of conflict, jealousy, warring Ionian nations and including the other critical characters: Orontes a valiant ardent suitor of Creusa and Creon her father, the tale is in essence the story of Medea’s fury at her betrayal by Jason and the revenge that she wreaks upon him and Creusa.

Although written in the 17th century for Louis XIV, McVicar sets his tale against a backdrop of 1940s war torn Europe with key men all having distinct military backgrounds. Jason is a naval commander, Creon an army general, while Orontes is a flying ace from the US air force, underlined by Aoife O’Sullivan’s ominously black-winged Cupid making her entry in a P51 Mustang from that era. Christian Curnyn’s orchestra are magnificent with Nicholas Andsell-Evans’ masterful harpsichord providing a continual aural reference to the baroque era of this opera’s genesis.

Without exception, the delivery of each character is flawless. Sarah Connolly is Medea, Princess of Colchis, with godlike powers. Connolly, one of our leading mezzo-sopranos has a gruelling rôle as her life unravels from doting wife to vengeful murderess. This diva has presence and projection, with arias that are spine-tingling. Modestly clad throughout, mostly barefoot in a humble slip, she commands our sympathy as she is humiliated and rejected. It is troubling to acknowledge in the brilliance of her performance, that while her last act of infanticide horrifies, her enaction of a mother drawn to such revengeful slaughter, provides a terrifying glimpse into what Congreve was to describe in the 1700’s as “hell having no fury as a woman scorned”.

Jeffrey Francis, a notable tenor from Missouri makes his ENO debut as Jason. His tone and presence are majestic, though if there is a criticism, it is that he seems to old an actor to be capable of winning Creusa’s love over and above the youthful warrior Orontes and the young princess’ desire for this heroic seaman, apparently old enough to be her father, lacks credibility.

The elderly Creon from Brindley Sherratt is a richly voiced portrayal of initial imperiousness crumbling to inadequate frailty when challenged by Medea’s dark supernatural powers. His desperate chasing of young beauty, trousers round his ankles, was as impressive as it was pitiful. Katherine Manley, an exquisite soprano plays his daughter, giving a performance of youthful talent to be savoured.

Choreographed by Lynne Page, the movement has flair and imagination. The leaping sailors and beautifully infernal female demons that torment Creon to madness, ensuring that there is eye as well as ear candy for all. At times though the synchronicity of the company’s dance seemed disjointed and one could wish for the ballet to be more tightly drilled.

Sung in a new English translation by Christopher Cowell and with surtitles, the libretto provides an accessible interpretation of the complex tale. In London for 9 performances only, this co-production with Geneva’s Grand Theatre thrills with a gruesome tale, superbly told.

Runs in repertory until 16th March

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