How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?  Or, more to the point, how do you exorcize the legend of Callas?

Well, the Metropolitan Opera did a pretty good job of it on September 27 as they opened their 2022-2023 season with their first production ever of Luigi Cherubini’s seminal opera Medea (or Médée as it was titled in 1797 at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris).

At the final bows of the production premiere last night, Sondra Radvanovsky as the titular sorceress and abandoned wife received a genuine (not rote) standing ovation with confetti showers pouring down from the Family Circle boxes (both sides).

No boos were heard for the production team.  Though some excitement was missing from the conducting and direction (which were highly competent without being truly inspired), the whole production came together powerfully via the titular protagonist.

Cherubini’s opera (originally an opéra-comique) is a transitional, often revolutionary music drama which has come down to us in various forms.  The French original version had musical set pieces interspersed with spoken dialogue en français.  This has been problematic as spoken dialogue doesn’t project well in huge theaters (like the Met) and opera singers don’t like alternating between their operatic singing and speaking voices (many don’t talk at all backstage during performances).

Non-francophone singers are not likely to project the dialogue convincingly as it is not something they are trained to do.  The spoken verses by original librettist François-Benoît Hoffman have been criticized as poor though in general his libretto (based on Euripides’ and Corneille’s tragedies) has been praised.

The Met chose an Italian version of Cherubini’s masterwork that premiered at La Scala in 1909 starring verismo tragedienne Ester Mazzoleni as the titular antiheroine.  That production used a revised version of the opera with orchestrally accompanied recitatives composed by Franz Lachner in 1855 for a German-language staging in Frankfurt translated into Italian by Carlo Zangarini.

When this “Medea” hybrid version was revived for Maria Callas at the 1953 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and in subsequent productions all over the world, it put the opera back on the map but also inextricably associated the role of Medea and the opera itself with the Greek-American soprano, making it difficult for successors to put their own personal stamp on it.

I will say that I think that Lachner’s recitatives are musically good – his style emulates Beethoven who admired and was influenced by Cherubini.  Cherubini’s 1800 opéra-comique Les deux journées, ou Le porteur d’eau was used by Beethoven as a model for his Leonore and Fidelio down to the spoken dialogues

The libretto for Fidelio is adapted from Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s libretto for Pierre Gaveaux’s Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal which premièred at the Théâtre Feydeau in 1798, with tenor-composer Gaveaux himself in the role of Florestan and soprano Julie-Angélique Scio as Léonore.  Scio and Gaveaux were the original Médée and Jason in Cherubini’s opera and they also created lead roles in Les deux journées.

Cherubini’s score, like Beethoven’s music, is based firmly in 18th century classicism but in its scope and intensity prefigures the heightened emotion and drama of 19th century Romanticism.  Tenor Matthew Polenzani, the Giasone of this production, has described Medea as a combination of Mozart and Verdi – and there is truth in that description.

However, Lachner’s recitatives add length and weight to Cherubini’s tight original score altering its musical dimensions.  The naturalistic declamatory style of the vocal writing (particularly for Médée/Medea herself) and the Italian-language translation often push the opera into proto-verismo (this is evident in Callas’ performances and other Italian-language performances from the late twentieth century).

Given the fact that Sondra Radvanovsky’s repertory specializes in Verdi, verismo and Italian opera and that most New York audiences are only familiar with Cherubini’s opera through Maria Callas’ recordings of this version, the choice of the Cherubini/Lachner conflation in Italian makes practical sense even if it lacks musicological propriety.

Enough background, how was the show?

David McVicar, who designed the set for this production as well as providing the stage direction, is currently the Met’s director of choice – this Medea is his 12th new production for the company.

He is also generally reviled by members of this board for his relatively unambitious, uncontroversial realistic and representational production style which is generally non-interventionist and conventional (though not lacking in psychological detail and acting direction).

Given that most Met audience members are unfamiliar with this opera and that it is a Met premiere (the opera was staged locally by the former New York City Opera with Marisa Galvany and Grace Bumbry in 1974 and 1982), a straightforward interpretation of the opera is a wise choice even if some theatrical excitement is lost.  I must note again there were no boos for the production team at the final curtain call.

The show curtain depicts the contorted face of a woman (presumably Medea herself) like a Greek mask of tragedy.  One eye glares with hatred while the other sheds bitter tears.  The mouth is contorted into a gaping frown of either rage or despair – or both.

McVicar’s unit set represents what seems to be the distressed portico of a Corinthian stone palace with columns and sliding panels which open revealing a rear space with a raked upstage mirror that reflects the action below giving a double vision effect.

The versatile set can provide either an intimate downstage private space for the intense interactions of Medea and the other characters or a larger public space incorporating the offstage outside world of Giasone, Creonte and Glauce and the chorus.  In this rear space we see a wedding banquet, the Golden Fleece that brought Medea and Jason together and the marriage ceremony of Giasone and Glauce.

During the Act III prelude, we also see Medea seemingly floating in space reflected in the rear mirror lying in the middle of the floor contemplating murder and revenge.  The upstage space also is used for the Act III temple where Medea murders her children and is consumed embracing their dead bodies in the burning temple by flames created by projections in a memorable final self-immolation.

Given that Medea tells Giasone in their final confrontation that her specter will meet him at the stygian shores of the river Acheron, murder-suicide is a convincing choice though the original Médée famously fled via a dragon-led chariot in the final tableau.

There is much offstage action which is narrated by the chorus and Jason from the wings.  McVicar opens the rear stage area to depict these (often grisly) tableaux including the dying Glauce and Medea’s murdered children in the temple with Medea (and the audience) as witness.  This adds visual and dramatic variety to the mostly static dramaturgy.

If the set looks ancient, the costumes by debutante costume designer Doey Lüthi update the action to the Napoleonic era of the opera’s composition.  This has been done before, notably in a 1989 Covent Garden production of Médée starring Rosalind Plowright directed by Mike Ashman.

The costumes for Jason’s Argonauts resemble the pirates of the Caribbean but the Empire waist costumes for the Glauce and the ladies and the military uniforms for the men are handsomeMedea sports one black ball gown with distressed lace and bare shoulders enhanced by leather wristbands and beaded necklaces.   

Paule Constable’s vivid lighting uses chiaroscuro effects to enhance the drama.  Jo Meredith, a debutante, is credited as movement director eliciting visually arresting physical performances from the leads particularly from the diva.

McVicar handles the chorus and staging of the upstage tableaux with expert flair.  The few novel directorial interventions are supported by the text and add theatrical interest.  There is little in deep psychological interpretation though Medea is conceived as a woman more sinned against than sinning, as much victim as victimizer.

This interpretation of the character, I am afraid, is not supported by the story despite current feminist ideology and politically correct attitudes.  Medea’s multiple murders (which begin with the murder and dismemberment of her own brother in Colchos) still horrify the viewer in their savagery establishing her as a narcissistic sociopath.  Her final suicide in this production also supports the victim/victimizer concept.

Maestro Carlo Rizzi and the Metropolitan Orchestra and Chorus acquitted themselves with a high level of professionalism and musicianship.  However, I have always found Rizzi a very competent and versatile conductor but not an interesting one.  A high-level routinier who is good to have around but isn’t going to generate excitement or provide insight.

The orchestral conducting and playing were big house 18th century classicism seen through a Romantic 19th century lens with a big modern instrument 21st century orchestra.  Cherubini’s score has blazing and musically revolutionary passages (mostly for the antiheroine) but also rather conventional classical pieces (mostly for the other characters and chorus) with slow-moving dramatic momentum which needs enlivening energy from the pit to keep the performers and audience engaged.  What we heard was musically valid but not exciting enough needing more musical attack and dramatic contrast.

The supporting cast were all in good voice and suitable to their roles.  The evening begins with the sad forebodings of bride-to-be Glauce here sung by Janai Brugger as she is fitted for her wedding gown.  Brugger’s tone has a lush bloom but I felt the higher and more florid passages in her opening aria revealed some thinning and fluttery tone.  She should settle down and get more confident as the run progresses.

Veteran bass Michele Pertusi as Creonte showed some dryness of tone around the edges (mostly lower register) but in the house his tone had presence with vivid Italian word pointing.  Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Neris unfurled a vibrant tone with lush legato phrasing in her long-lined aria “Solo un pianto”.  Gubanova also sounded bright and gleaming in Neris’ more extroverted moments.

Matthew Polenzani was more lyrical than heroic as Giasone and (as in last season’s Don Carlos) was feared to be too lightweight for the role which has been often sung by spinto and dramatic tenors like the late Jon Vickers.  Perhaps Polenzani with his lovely French diction and style would be better suited to the French version in a more historical period practice edition?

However, celebrating his 25th season with the company, Polenzani’s bright lyric tenor easily filled out the music balancing Mozartian elegance with incisive Verdian phrasing providing enough tonal thrust to hold his own with Sondra Radvanovsky.  His acting was more Pinkerton than Jason overall but he had sympathetic presence and good rapport with his diva.

And the diva herself??

The opera itself ambles along unmemorably only coming to vivid life when Medea shows up in Act I to throw a wrench into the proceedings.  Medea drives the action, almost always onstage thereafter.  The music becomes more angular, harmonically daring and unconventional when she is onstage.

The opera builds in intensity and interest as she takes over the drama – Act III is almost a monodrama and is musically and dramatically novel and exciting.  The other characters fade into the background musically and dramatically except during Medea’s confrontations with her unfaithful husband.

Sondra Radvanovsky has always had a controversial voice which is moving and exciting to some listeners and ugly and grating to others.  She is blessed with blazing high notes but also has a bottled middle and lower register with a timbre that is hooded and sometimes opaque in the middle.

The tone leans toward the metallic and dramatic rather than lush beauty.  Her vibrato is not always even or controlled – it can oscillate fast and sharp or slow and flat.  Last night, the vibrato was even and not prominent. The weird, unique and sometimes alienating qualities in the voice suited the character and vocal writing brilliantly.

Radvanovsky has an unconventional voice that is suited to unconventional characters and is best used in rangy, difficult music.  The lack of lush beauty was no deficit in depicting Medea’s jealousy and vengeful rage depicted by Cherubini in angular, declamatory vocal writing which Radvanovsky performed superbly with abandon.

However, in the Act I duet “Dei tuoi figli la madre”, Radvanovsky floated haunting pianissimos as Medea attempts to soften Giasone’s enmity and gain his sympathy.  Then Radvanovsky tore savagely into “Nemici senza cor” stabbing at her enemies hurling steely high notes like knives.

Relative weakness in the lower register was the only real vocal deficit – once or twice she would dip cautiously into chest tone but it was not enough.  Radvanovsky also can be guilty of odd closed Italian vowels and veiled diction – neither was evident on opening night though her word pointing could use more variety.

Radvanovsky has also been praised for her acting which I have mostly found studious but not instinctive or visceral in impact. While Sondra’s voice is larger than life, her stage presence is not. Most of the drama in Radvanovsky’s performing comes from her unique and impactful vocalism which uses up most of her performing energy keeping a big and often wild voice under control.  As Medea, she balances the singing and the acting intensity more evenly with a striking plastique developed in collaboration with movement director Jo Meredith.

Radvanovsky never lets the audience lose sight that Medea is as much wounded and suffering as revengeful and rage filled.  Also, Radvanovsky’s Medea always seemed sane and controlled without the madness and mania of other performances of the play and the opera.  The formality of the music does not support such a characterization.

There is a demonic element in the character which is shortchanged thereby but the humanity of the character is enhanced which I think is the intention.  Again, given the blood spilled on the stage, it is hard to feel much compassion for Medea as in her view she ends up the “winner” in depriving Jason of everything including his children. But at the same time she too loses everything, including a part of her humanity.

Medea may or may not be a winner at the end but Radvanovsky, her colleagues, the Metropolitan Opera and Cherubini’s opera itself emerged as winners on opening night.  I counsel you to get those tickets (there are still many available) and see this show live.  The HD transmission at your local movie theater is on October 22.

Photos: Marty Sohl / Met Opera