Cherubini’s Medea at the Glimmerglass Festival

Yesterday I took a long drive to the scenic middle of nowhere that is home to the Glimmerglass Festival to see Cherubini’s Medea. This being the US, it was the Italian version. This is basically a diva vehicle, and on that front it was a reasonable success thanks to Alexandra Deshorties as Maria Callas Medea, and the conducting by Daniele Rustioni was surprisingly excellent. Unfortunately this isn’t quite my style of opera, and wasn’t enough to balance out a poor supporting cast and a blah production.

Cherubini Medea (Italian version by Carlo Zangarini). Glimmerglass Festival, 8/16/2011. Production by Michael Barker-Caven, conducted by Daniele Rustioni with Alexandra Deshorties (Medea), Jeffrey Gwaltney (Jason), David Pittsinger (Creon), Jessica Stavros (Glauce), Sarah Larsen (Neris).

This was the last performance of Medea of the festival. Two of the originally leading roles (Glauce and Jason) were sung by covers, which made me a little mad. Based on the lack of “[original singer] is ill” in the announcement), I darkly suspected that this was planned well in advance, because this was the last performance and the covers were being given a chance to go on. Something mysterious might have happened tenor-wise, considering original cast Jason Collins has disappeared from the company website (though not the printed program). But there was no mention on the website of the absence of Wendy Bryn Harmer, whom, after admiring her singing in many small roles at the Met, I was really looking forward to seeing in a larger part. Either this was in fact a “cover show” that should have been marked as such (I would have bought a ticket for a different performance), or people were sick (and/or fired, quit, something) and the replacements were not clearly announced.

Sorry to waste so many words on that, but I was disappointed and thought it was handled somewhat dishonestly.

The Golden Fleece is hovering

Fortunately soprano Alexandra Deshorties remained as the titular child-killer. Her voice has been around the block, and sounds uneven and acidulous (and not that big), but it’s got a lot of character and she wields it with conviction. (Her career has had a lot of ups and downs as well.) It wasn’t pristine singing by a long shot but she’s got temperament, which in this role might be more important. The Personenregie consisted primarily of arm gestures (more on that in a minute), among the cast she alone managed to make a character from this by deploying them in a way that was not semaphoric but rather crazed and random, and she was charismatically deranged the whole way through. There wasn’t a whole lot of dramatic shape or progression, but that was a problem of everyone in this production.

The musical highlight of the performance was Daniele Rustioni’s conducting, which had excellent pacing and drama and heat in a way that is too rare in this kind of repertoire. His is definitely a name to watch, and he already has an impressive CV. The orchestra wasn’t that great, but they followed him well, and the coordination was excellent. Unfortunately the small chorus was unbalanced and unblended, a few voices dominating (it seems to consist mostly of members of the Young Artists Program, who probably have soloistic rather than choral ambitions).

Gwaltney, Pittsinger, and Stavros

It is too bad that none of the other members of the cast reached Rustioni’s or Deshorties’s level. David Pittsinger was sonorous but unimposing as Creon, and Sarah Larsen sounded slightly covered as Néris but gave a beautifully musical account of her aria, one of the highlights of the score. That leaves the two covers, both of whom are in “Young Artist” programs and sound like works in progress, possibly rather uncertain with their parts. Jessica Stavros has a large and powerful voice, but as Glauce (the character you might know as Creusa) her tone was often harsh and shrill, and her singing lacked phrasing and rhythmic pulse. Jeffrey Gwaltney sounds like he has a fine medium-sized Italiante tenor somewhere, but it came out cloudily and he seemed unsure onstage, with no connection to Medea to speak of.

The production, by Michael Barker-Caven (with sets and costumes by Joe Vanek and lighting by Robert Wierzel), struck me as rather similar to Stephen Wadsworth’s Met Iphigénie en Tauride: a dark color palette, armor, robes. It’s a unit interior set of looming walls but relatively little atmosphere, and the generic visuals plus static, stiff direction never established a sense of atmosphere. The only mode of expression seemed to be formulaic, vaguely vase-like hand gestures. Except Deshorties (given unfortunate henna tattoos and a succession of bedraggled outfits moving from Goth hippie to Corpse Bride to intergalactic wench to an unfortunate bloody little black number), none of the singers managed to do much to create living characters. The plot doesn’t move quickly, but the direction only exacerbated the problems. Some hovering sidekicks for Medea didn’t do that much, and in general the production lacked an interesting point of view on the piece.

This performance unfortunately never really grabbed me, which may have been partly because I kept thinking of Aribert Reimann’s fantastic Medea setting, which I saw last December. Reimann’s spiky atonality is more my style (Cherubini sounds a little dinky to me, to be honest, I’ve been listening to too much Wagner), the Grillparzer-based libretto has a lot more action, and the production was much better. Your tastes, of course, may vary.

For another view, I highly recommend you read Opera Obsession’s take, with a much more detailed look at the drama than my more musical take. Disclaimer: We went together, and had a really great time. We did not consult on our reviews, but if we had it would have looked something like this.


Photos copyright Julieta Cervantes/Glimmerglass Festival.

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  1. Thanks a lot for the info, Pokeygascon. I hope Collins is OK! As you can see, I didn't read any other reviews yet.

    I feel a little bad whining about it, and I know most people probably don't care,. But I didn't bargain on two not-great covers in major roles and would have appreciated an explanation from the company as to why.

  2. Diva vehicle isn't quite fair I don't think… In the right hands (and vocal chords) it can be a lot more.

    (cribbed from Boosey website): acclaim for the work expressed by Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner and Brahms does not come as a surprise; indeed, Brahms went so far as to praise Médée as the “highest dramatic art”.

    I think Brahms even wanted to be buried with the score. And he wasn't exactly an opera queen. Beethoven said Cherubini was the greatest operatic composer of the era. I don't agree (Mozart uber alles!) but can see why he might have said it.

  3. Capriccio, indeed that is somewhat unfair about the opera as whole but here was colored for me by a performance whose principal virtue was its diva. Most of the other reasons you cite I would classify as "historical interest," which is also not too strong an argument. Despite the writings of Berlioz and Wagner, I've never heard anyone clamor for a Spontini revival… or (outside of Russia) Glinka or Dargomzhsky…

  4. I also got the announcement about Jason Collins' accident and Ms Harmer's acute sinus distress and had a reaction identical to yours about the well-prepared but faceless covers and, in Ms Stavros' case, vocally annoying upper register.

    As for Ms Deshorties, I was struck by her physicality in the role which was quite extreme but which she filled with a conviction that made it all the more eloquent in limning Medea as the toxic outsider in Creon's utterly conventional city-state.

    I was disappointed that the Italian version with Lachner's additions was once again being trotted out in a summer when Glimmerglass was doing the original opera-comique Carmen with spoken dialog.
    I spoke with Medea's assistant conductor and he said the decision seems to have been based on doing what the audience was familiar with and that two French operas-comiques with spoken dialog was feared to be too much for the audience in one season. Clearly, I don't agree. I still await seeing the total original. Decades ago, Sarah announced the original French Medea but made the mind-boggling choice to have the dialog translated into Attic Greek and set to 12-tone music by a contemporary Greek composer. These were recorded by a separate cast of actors who took the stage every time the French arias and scenes ended and mimed the action, having traded props with the singers who exited to let the actors take the stage. The reverse happened when the music was to begin. It was horrific beyond imagining.

  5. Hi Will, thanks for the comment; I actually think the Sarah Caldwell thing sounds kind of cool? But it's probably the kind of idea that is better in theory than practice, I can see how it ended up as a train wreck. Totally agree with you on the Glimmerglass production.

    I think American audiences are more open-minded than opera administrators and conductors give them credit for. I suspect the idea that we aren't ready for spoken French dialogue contains a good deal of projection. I bet the Glimmerglass Carmen had recitatives, too…

  6. I saw Medea on July 30, and had many of the same reactions you did. I reviewed it for I didn't care for Deshorties at all, and she didn't sell what appeared to be arbitrary gestures and body movements one bit. I was struck by the contrast between Jason Gwaltney's performance in the double bill of one-acts, which was very confident and vocally excellent, and his Jason in Medea. I had the feeling he hadn't had enough rehearsal, so I'm surprised that impression still came across in every performance throughout the run.

  7. Jason collins was able to do the first two performances then was forced to quit as a result of the injury sustained in Tech rehearsals. He is still working on recovering almost a year later but has had to cancel subsequent engagements and the injury was a result of the negligence of the production staff at Glimmerglass.