Last year the Bayerische Staatsoper unearthed Giovanni/Johann(es) Simon Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto and gave it a production by Hans Neuenfels, now available on DVD. It was worth the effort: this is a really good opera. The performance is worth seeing too.
I have been making something of a specialty of Medea operas recently, with entries by Cherubini and Reimann preceding this one. The thrilling Reimann remains my favorite, but this one also has its moments. The libretto is the most complex and political of the three and is the only one to include Creusa’s original fiancé Aegus (Egeo), who teams up with Medea for revenge. It’s a lengthy piece and sometimes moves slowly, but there a few really great scenes, like Medea’s confrontation with Jason and Medea’s big Act 2 scena.
Mayr’s operas are the missing link between La clemenza di Tito and Donizetti, with a side of Der Freischütz. The composer’s Germanic heritage shows up in his complicated harmonies, but the vocal lines sometimes sound like proto-bel canto. Indeed, Mayr was Donizetti’s teacher, Rossini’s rival, and in his day was sometimes called a greater composer than Beethoven. His music sounds a little odd to me, it’s so familiar and yet not quite like any of those other composers. It has a few rote patches, but the overall level is high enough to classify this as a rediscovery of a major forgotten work. It’s good stuff.
Hans Neuenfels’s stark and brutal production contains a lot of Regie cliché and fussiness but ultimately is quite effective and engrossing. He obviously minded the adage of incorporating the opera’s original setting, the time of its composition, and the present day. We have ancient, ritual timelessness mixed with Egeo in 19th-century garb (he apparently represents 19th-century honor?), and most of the rest in harsh modern dress. It’s hard to get a good look at the multi-level set in the many close-ups of the DVD, but it seems to combine a temple setting with a little house on top.
You can’t blame Medea for not wanting any part of this Corinth. It’s a miserable, inhuman place and she seems like the only sympathetic and empathetic character in the whole thing. Pregnant women are machine-gunned and happy choruses accompany brutal wrestling. Neuenfels seems to suggest that their music is how these characters wish to present themselves, while the staging shows them as they appear to the objective world. Medea at first enters wearing a hula skirt and an elaborate headdress, a total outsider. Her first aria includes a prominent violin obligato and the violinist joins her onstage, implying a sincerity to her music that the other characters never get. Her infanticide is still horrific, but it becomes more comprehensible, because who would want to stick around in this place? It sometimes turns heavy-handed and is extremely German–there’s a Cupid figure who seems to castrate himself, as if we didn’t notice that Love is over–but the singers commit to the concept and the psychology works.
Ivor Bolton’s conducting and the orchestra are excellent; after a scrappy start the chorus sounds great too. Unfortunately there’s Nadja Michael to deal with in the title role. She’s a transfixing presence, intense and deeply expressive, actually making this impossible role sympathetic. But her voice is unevenly projected, harsh in tone, and intonationally approximate. Not a single phrase seems to come out smoothly, but she sure is intense. A few strong notes suggest that if she were to get it together she could be vocally memorable too. The rest of the cast is much better. Ramón Vargas is in good voice as Giasone (and doing the best he can acting-wise, looking typically tenorial), but the two highlights are the younger leads, Elena Tsallagova’s bell-like soprano as Creusa and particularly tenor Alek Schrader, who seems to have no trouble with his role’s high tessitura and sings with easy grace–a name to watch.
Definitely worth checking out. The DVD is published by Arthaus Musik and will be available on October 25 in the US.
Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper