English National Opera has of late started to carve a niche for itself in exploring French Baroque Opera, having staged Rameau’s Castor and Pollux in 2011, and now Charpentier’s Medea of 1693.
Based on Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy, Medea sees the eponymous sorceress reap revenge on her love Jason for his affair with Creusa, the daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Jason claims he is only pursuing her in order to secure the protection of Creon, but Medea sees through the deception, and is even driven to murder her own children because they are a part of him.
David McVicar – as proven with his Royal Opera House productions of Salome and Rigoletto – is fond of blood and raunch, two elements which are present in abundance here. He transports the piece to France during the Second World War, with Creon heading the army, and Prince Orontes of Argos, with whom Creon forges an alliance against Acastus of Thessaly, commanding the US air force. The action takes place in a French chateau which has been taken over by the military, a space complete with communications room and imported furniture.
This is an inspired decision which allows the sense of military hierarchy inherent in the original to still carry weight and meaning, while making the characters more human, flesh and blood not figures of legend. In particular, Medea is here humanised; she is a woman who possesses huge power, but is also as vulnerable as she is self-righteous. There are some beautifully inventive touches to the staging. When Cupid is due to appear on a chariot, we instead see Aoife O’Sullivan in a dinner jacket with wings riding in a glitter-covered plane that bridges the gap between reality and fantasy. The production is also lit to perfection by Paule Constable, who creates swirling shadows on the walls and – via a reflective stage floor – also on the dome of the auditorium.
From Act Three onwards there are fewer opportunities to further the World War Two setting, but this hardly matters as we’re caught up in things by this stage, captivated by the summoning of demons by Medea and the wrenching moment when Jason sees the image of his dead children. Charpentier’s formulaic music does not in itself create dramatic climaxes; it is the staging and performances that give these scenes their deep emotional power.
The cast as a whole is strong but Sarah Connolly’s Medea really stands out. Her mezzo-soprano voice is radiant in it cleanness and power, her enunciation is impeccable, and she’s magnificent to watch as she inflicts chaos all around her while standing perfectly still. Jeffery Francis is effective as the emotionally torn Jason, Brindley Sherratt is a masterful Creon with his rich bass voice, and Roderick Williams a sterling Orontes. Katherine Manley is a sweet-voiced and enticing Creusa, while Rhian Lois excels in the role of Medea’s confidante, Nerina. Christian Curnyn conducts Charpentier’s score – based on an edition by Clifford Bartlett – with sensitivity and understanding, but it is the combination of elements, the relationship between the music and the staging, that makes this opera come so vividly to life.