Cher Public

How do you solve a problem like Medea?

Made cautious by the endless coloratura laments of the woman in red, groveling in a stage-wide sandbox and packing up her gilded rawhide fleece (soprano Claudia Barainsky, in a role created by Marlis Peterson), I was puzzled by my initial exposure to the Medea of Aribert Reimann, a work of 2010. 

The opera is Reimann’s latest so far, but hey, the guy is only 80. On Tuesday, I attended a performance at the Wiener Staatsoper, where it is being revived in its world premiere production. The orchestration is highly involved but the atonal leitmotiven do not, at a first hearing, linger in the ear. Like most “modern” scores for traditional forces, it features more percussion than strings or winds, and they make their points in the theater.

But the entrance of Kreusa (Stephanie Houtzeel) gave notice that Reimann, probably the most distinguished living German opera composer, had many theatrical and musical tricks up his sleeve. Jason (tenor Adrian Erod) has been arguing with Kreon (bass Norbert Ernst) over whether he will be allowed to remain in Corinth and whether his wife will be exiled, and Kreon mentions there is also the matter of Kreusa. As he sings his daughter’s name, her voice, a dark and spectacular mezzo, fills the hall, and soon the girl descends the stairs from the square, glassed-in box, alienated above the sandy earth, that appears to be where the royals live.

Houtzeel, tall and blonde and clothed in white pant suit and caftan cloak, does not portray the sweet, subdued woman-child of most dramatizations of the Medea legend. (The opera is based on a play by old Vienna’s laureate, Franz Grillparzer.) She is an active presence, flirting with Jason, seducing his children with games and toys, even attempting the conquest of Medea, placing her white cloak over Medea’s red dress and leading her upstairs to a scene of girlish calisthenics (I’m not kidding) while they duet in elaborate coloratura figurations. It avails her nothing in the end: Our last sight of her is a despairing hand clutching the Venetian blinds while the smoke of her pyre emerges from the glass box.

What Houtzeel most brilliantly but all the characters effectively presented to our attention, along with the superb acting one expects of any continental opera ensemble nowadays, is a composer who knows how to write spectacularly for the human voice, an instrument far too many post-tonal composers seemed to despise or simply not to understand. Not only does Reimann understand the voice, what can be done with it, how it can be manipulated to manipulate us when telling a story; he shows every sign of loving the sounds that human beings can produce.

There is sensual pleasure in the experience of Medea, even if the idiom is strange. (Is it still so strange to anyone? Well, to those who have not been paying attention since, say, Lulu.) Since we take pleasure in the storytelling and the musical activity, surely we will return for more. Isn’t that how the system is supposed to work?

The staging illustrates but does not confuse: If you know any other version of Medea, you will be able to follow this one. (The Staatsoper has seat-back subtitles like the Met’s, that can be read or ignored.) Medea and her sons wear red, her nurse Gora (contralto Monika Bohinee) violet, Jason khaki.

Bbut he changes before our eyes into the white worn by the Greeks: Kreon, Kreusa, the Herold (sic) of the Oracle of Delphi. Jason knocks the boys’ red hats off when presenting them to the princess, who delightedly lures them upstairs and brings them back in white. The opera’s message is tied to the crisis of immigrant refugees whose crimes or habits may render them distasteful to the “civilized” West—but just how contemporary is that crisis? Euripides harped on the same string.

Kreon quizzes Jason on his own criminal past—the murder of his uncle Pelias—but it soon becomes clear that what he’s really after is the Golden Fleece. The prospect of the Fleece in his family leads him to defy the Oracle, whose messenger arrives with a “chorus” of mute soldiers resembling a frieze on a temple. This Herold, by the way, is another spectacular coloratura role, this time for countertenor, composed for Max Emmanuel Cencic but on this occasion performed by Daichi Fujiki, whose voice has the body and creamy quality of the modern operatic avatar of that species as well as dazzling note-spinning. Riemann thus joins the modern composers who have found this antique timbre useful and plausible for the latest music.

Medea, blamed and excoriated by all, goes mad. Barainsky grovels in the sand and ransacks the stage, and her vocal lines become ever wilder—the relationship to Handel’s Dejanira and Mozart’s Elettra is clear, however untuneful. But the staging accords intriguingly with her psychic universe: The backstage full of boulders and rocks in an oppressive desert landscape begins slowly to rise, to tip in relationship to the front of the stage, so that the boulders begin to slide and roll, and an earthquake impinges upon Medea’s desolation to match her madness.

The catastrophe—the murders of Kreusa and the boys (whom Medea detests for leaving her for the other woman)—follows as it usually does. Kreon casts out Jason, whom we see dying in the sun that has burned him brown. But Medea’s own end is unclear: Did she fall on a spear after killing the boys or does she return, clothed in the Golden Fleece, to taunt the dying Jason that they still love each other, then march grandly away, vowing to present the Fleece to Delphi and permit the priests there to sacrifice her? It was difficult to make sense of action, subtitles and music at once. But I can accept an ambiguous conclusion.

Michael Boder was the conductor and the standees (in particular) went mad for him. They (I am sure) know the work better than I do. The penetrating stage direction, set and lighting was by Marco Arturo Marelli, the costumes (modern dress with a classical drape for the Greeks, a peasant one for the Colchians) by Dagmar Niefind.

So far as I know, the only major American opera company to dabble with Reimann is San Francisco’s, which has presented his Lear. More attention should be paid to such a man. I wonder what his Troades is like—certainly the subject is of contemporary relevance.

Photo: Michael Pöhn.