Cherubini’s Médée: A Poignant Triumph

Revenge Tragedy Soars with Georgian Soprano Iano Tamar at the Renovated Theater an der Wien

Iano Tamar (Médée) | Photo: Armin Bardel

Iano Tamar (Médée) | Photo: Armin Bardel

Iano Tamar (Médée) | Photo: Armin Bardel

Iano Tamar (Médée), Bernhard Mendel & Alexander Zerbes (Médées Kinder), Arnold Schoenberg Chor & Statisten | Photo: Armin Bardel

Médée

Iano Tamar (Médée) | Photo: Armin Bardel

In its fervour and intense foreboding, the whole tragedy of Luigi Cherubini’s Médée is contained in the overture. There, laid bare in heart-wrenching cantilena passages, is the warrior’s greed for political power, position and fame in counterpoint with the betrayed woman’s cry for revenge and the unthinkable final deed; there is the forlorn memory of love and passion which knew no bounds and no boundaries. There above all, is the relentless course of this myth, to be told anew.

Cherubini’s wonderfully dramatic and emotional music was in worthy hands with the Vienna Symphony in this closing performance, guided tightly and with keen expressivity by Fabio Luisi to an intelligent and sensitive interpretation of this remarkable score. It should not be construed as eclectic nit-picking to trace undertones of Haydn (particularly reminiscent of Orpheus) and premonitions of Rossini, but rather as a tribute. We heard both the febrile urgency of the harmonies and the finely-phrased, lilting melodies — with a special “chapeau” to the wind soloists, whose mastery contributed to the overwhelming musical success of the evening.

Médée

Iano Tamar (Médée) | Photo: Armin Bardel

The Theater an der Wien had, once again, chosen a little-performed opera (the last new production here was in 1972 at the Vienna State Opera) and entrusted it to Torsten Fischer to find a fitting contemporary mantle. Fischer seems to have a special rapport with French opera; we remember his magical production of Massenet’s Don Quichotte in 2003 at the same theatre. His solution for Médée reveals the devastating individual human tragedy at the centre of the myth – a wife and mother wounded to the depths, crushed by the wilfulness and greed of men who cast her aside for political opportunism, and her desperate attempts to reassert her position and thus redeem a vestige of her own identity and self-respect. Her failure to do so (touching in the stunted gestures of last-ditch love offerings) drives her into madness and the unspeakable crime of filicide.

Ever since the Greek tragedy by Euripides, Medea has been one of the most complex and demanding female characters to portray. Austrian audiences are usually most conversant with the story as told by Franz Grillparzer in his trilogy The Golden Fleece, in which the quest for the symbol of power provides the narrative backdrop for Medea and Jason’s private story. Cherubini’s librettist, François-Benoȋt Hoffmann, concentrates the plot on Corinth, to where Jason and Medea have fled with their children, after stealing the Golden Fleece. The prized trophy, however, brings them nothing but ill; King Créon offers Jason refuge, but only on condition that he marry his daughter Dircé. Jason’s crimes – the deaths of Medea’s father and brother – are thus further compounded by de-facto bigamy as he sets out to comply with Créon’s wishes to send Medea into exile.

Cherubini’s Médée

Iano Tamar (Médée), Bernhard Mendel & Alexander Zerbes (Médées Kinder), Arnold Schoenberg Chor & Statisten | Photo: Armin Bardel

Zoran Todorovich is a convincing Jason, both musically and dramatically, oddly undermined by the undignified knit undershirt revealed under his naval uniform jacket (costumes: Andreas Janczyk). Equally distracting was the laboured symbolism of the boarding-school/novice-like uniforms of the female chorus.

Medea, alone, surrounded by the menacing populace of Corinth, finds her strength in her very isolation. She first appears during the overture, when the curtain rises on a steel-walled chamber (set: Herbert Schäfer) reminiscent of both prison and church, focussed on a Christian icon of Madonna and Child at centre stage, set with flowers and candles. Shrouded completely in burqa-like flowing black robes, Medea strides slowly as if in sleep, with visionary purposefulness, towards the front and there breaks down. The scene is significant – the outsider, the foreigner, the one who is different, dares to approach and indeed to challenge the inner sanctity of this state. And yet, of course, it is Medea’s world – both inner and outer – which has been rent apart. She it is, who seeks refuge and solace and finds only rejection, and finally damnation. The religious metaphors are somewhat mixed here, but the nod to the chasms of distrust and propensity for violence from national, religious, ethnic and racial differences is understood.

This was Iano Tamar’s evening. Not only did she conquer the extremely demanding part with bravura and sensitivity, she also portrayed the psychological center of the role with every look and gesture. She was Medea, in a memorable performance, and without gainsaying Fabio Luisi’s thorough support, it was nevertheless Tamar who transformed herself and made the suffering and horror utterly believable.

Médée

Iano Tamar (Médée) | Photo: Armin Bardel

The clear, finely-attuned voice of Henriette Bonde-Hansen as the blonde Dircé was a well chosen vocal and visual complement to Tamar’s dark Medea. Startlingly beautiful and yet so out of place in her bejewelled wedding dress she remains nothing but a pawn in her father’s kingdom, and Dircé, too, must drink deep of the waters of ghastly premonition, finally murdered with the poison on Medea’s black veil.

The Arnold Schönberg Choir contributed their usual fine choral voice and presence. Only Olaf Bär was disappointing and wooden as Créon, uncomfortable with the French text and whose aging voice left much to be filled in by the listener.

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