Finally, I made it to the last night (afternoon, actually) of the ENO show that seems to have had people raving – positively, for once. After Barry Kosky’s rather preposterous Castor & Pollux, ENO’s second go at the French Baroque was Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medée (or Medea, as it was presented in this instance…) There are elements of the genre that don’t quite do it for me, but this was overall a fantastic piece of theatre.
Central to it all, of course, was Sarah Connolly’s Medea. I still can’t get out of my head her Fricka in the Royal Opera’s Ring Cycle, but that was an act of spectacular reinvention of a character that was well-known (or so I thought) to me; Medea was a character new to me, and she sprang into life before me with more complexity than I could have expected. Having previously known only that she murders her children to avenge her lover’s (and their father’s) infidelity, I was completely unprepared by how sympathetic a character she could be made to be, notably in the hands of Connolly, McVicar and Marc-Antoine Charpentier. In the Baroque opera idiom, which can be two-dimensional in its worst incarnations, this was a remarkably intricate character. Having started out slightly muted, she burst into life in Act 3, calling the infernal hordes with an added body and urgency to the tone, a passage which built to an expression of utter despair as the opera developed, and culminated in an ending that was fabulously grand guignol (200 years avant la lettre) as her fury thunders forth and the bodies mount up. Sensational.
It’s unsurprising that many of the other characters struggle to stand up to this central vortex of tortured and torturing psychodrama. The king, Creon, was a resonant and solid Brindley Sherratt, going mad with sensitive, gentle descent (particularly impressively acted, given the way his onset of madness is laid out in the drama). As his daughter, Creusa, destined to be burned to death in an accursed, overheating gown, Katherine Manley sang with light, bright tone, but which took on a chilling, penetrative weight to bring a surprising vocal twist to her horrible final ordeal. Given how preposterous that end sounds, she was completely convincing, imbuing it with astonishing intensity and pain. Her would-be lover, Orontes, was played by Roderick Williams in strong voice and cocky attitude. Which leaves Jeffery Francis as Jason, remaining a sort of cipher throughout, a relative vocal lightness perhaps suiting a character who isn’t really the centrepoint of the work: his actions are – on the face of it – the cause of Medea’s descent into violence, but he doesn’t really drive the drama in any convincing sense. An extensive supporting cast of individual singer/actors, dancers and the chorus (who were sometimes relegated to the pit to provide eerie offstage interjections, completed a strong team.
David McVicar pulled rabbits out of hats again, figuratively speaking. As with his Giulio Cesare for Glyndebourne (and the Met), he used the dance interludes intelligently to embellish the setting. In this case, that setting was World War 2, roughly, with lots of chic 1940s outfits and military uniforms. His use of the staid, solid Navy types (Jason their leader) in opposition to the cocky, newcomer RAF-ish boys (led by Creon) was inspired – completely erasing any concerns that evil spells, devilry and witchcraft might look out of place in an era of Bakelite. The single set was lit to stunning multiple effect by Paule Constable, and everything was suffused by a love of detail that simply inspires such confidence that one can sit back and bathe in the show as it unfolds. The translation left me with a few questions, I have to say: it seemed convoluted and wordy in places, so that even the most accomplished of singers struggled to get clarity to the upper reaches of the theatre; I think it also lost the poetry that I imagine to be in the original French (not being intimately familiar with it).
I say that McVicar used dance effectively: well, if I have a particular criticism, it is the excess of rather interruptive dance numbers. However cleverly they are deployed, they rather drag, and I did get a bit impatient by the end of Act 2 particularly. But that’s my problem with Charpentier (or the fashions that governed his output), not McVicar, and to the composer’s credit the music was engaging and varied throughout – I’d almost have preferred the dance numbers to have been orchestral interludes, actually. The sounds struck me as more richly varied than are heard in, for example, Handel. The orchestra, under the direction of Christian Curnyn, conjured up a glorious transparency, poise and energy, with some lovely woodwind sonorities in the heavier and more dramatic passages.
All in all, setting aside those dragging dance numbers, an impressive evening. I should even be tempted to say: more Charpentier and Rameau; less Handel…