After Handel’s Teseo  and Lully’s Thésée,  that murdering mom Medea finally gets top billing. Cherubini’s most famous work Médée hasn’t often been done in its original opera-comique incarnation so today’s “Trove Thursday” offers a pair of live broadcasts of the drastic 19th century revision by Franz Lachner featuring two compelling mid-20th century divas—Inge Borkh in German and Eileen Farrell in Italian. 

Given this frequently used edition, few probably recall that this great opera admired by Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven is an 18th century French work that premiered in Paris in 1797, Cherubini’s 22nd opera in a career that had already spanned 25 years. Outside of France where it didn’t catch on, its early popularity was hindered by the spoken dialogue, so in 1855 Lachner composed sung recitatives for an already cut German edition which was all eventually translated into Italian by Carlo Zangarini for a 1909 La Scala performance with Ester Mazzoleni.

It’s this much-manhandled edition that Maria Callas, the previous century’s most famous Medea, revived at both the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and La Scala in 1953.

Many of the last century’s great prima donnas after Callas have taken on Cherubini’s fiery anti-heroine, most often in the Lachner-Zangarini edition. Gwyneth Jones and Sylvia Sass headlined commercial recordings; Magda Olivero took on the role for the first time for her initial appearances in the in the US; and Grace Bumbry fled to New York City Opera for the chance to sink her teeth into the jealous sorceress.

Leonie Rysanek, Katia Ricciarelli and, of course, Leyla Gencer also portrayed the Italian Medea. Even Anna Caterina Antonacci whose impeccable assumptions of French roles have been high points in her career, has only performed the Cherubini in her native language.

But there have been some who have ventured the opera en français including Elizabeth Connell, Shirley Verrett, Angela Denoke and Najda Michael in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s startling contemporary production in Brussels and Paris.

Today’s podcast features Borkh and Farrell, two divas more known for their heroic German endeavors than French or even Italian repertoire. The always exciting Borkh is complemented by Vittorio Gui’s elegant conducting, and the delightful Rita Streich is an added bonus of the Berlin performance.

The New York concert from three years earlier—the opera’s US premiere-—will dispel any notions that Farrell was a bland interpreter. She also performed the role on stage in San Francisco in 1958 around the same time she recorded a well-known highlights LP. It’s illuminating to hear McCracken in the leading role of Jason so early in his career. The same month as this Cherubini performance he sang the Messenger in Aïda and Nathanael in Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Met; his triumphant return there in Otello was still eight years away.

In this age of “authenticity” Cherubini’s masterpiece is surprisingly still being performed in an edition the composer would hardly recognize. Jungendich-hopeful Lise Davidsen sang the Lachner/Zangarini version just last fall at the Wexford Festival

and that same contemporary production by Fiona Shaw reappears tomorrow night at Opera Omaha.

Shaw of course famously took on the same role in Euripides’s play both in London and in New York—who wouldn’t have been super-upset to be dumped by the yummy Jonathan Cake? I recall her superb Medea at BAM as less grand than Judith Anderson’s widely seen portrayal.

This fall Sonya Yoncheva will once again ride to the rescue, this time of the French Médée in which she will stalk Charles Castronovo conducted by Daniel Barenboim (?!) at the Berlin Staatsoper.

Yet another Medea opera, Johann Simon Mayr’s Medea in Corinto from 1813, will be one of the centerpieces of Will Crutchfield’s new venture Teatro Nuovo this summer at SUNY Purchase.

Cherubini: Médée (Lachner arrangement in its original German)

Titania Palast, Berlin

Medea — Inge Borkh
Glauce — Rita Streich
Neris — Sieglinde Wagner
Jason — Ludwig Suthaus
Creon — Tomislav Neralic
Conductor — Vittorio Gui

Cherubini: Médée (Lachner arrangement in Italian by Zangarini)

American Opera Society
Town Hall?
8 November 1955

Medea — Eileen Farrell
Glauce — Laurel Hurley
Neris — Martha Lipton
Giasone — James McCracken
Creonte — Norman Scott

Conductor — Arnold Gamson

Both versions of Médée (or rather Medea) canbe downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

Another Cherubini work, Ali Baba ou Les Quarantes Voleurs, composed more than 30 years after Médée, can be found here.

Well over 130 “Trove Thursday” podcasts including Handel and Lully’s Medea operas remain available from iTunes for free, or via any RSS reader.