Médée by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) at the Frankfurt Opera, Bockenheimer Depot. Conductor Andrea Marcon, director David Hermann. Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role. Complete cast and creative HERE. Seen on June 15 and June 17, 2011.
It’s perfectly fitting that the set of the new Frankfurt production of Médée should be a condo penthouse decorated in what can be called the banker modern (Toronto used to have a stockbroker Georgian), with the mandatory Knoll or van der Rohe armchairs, green roof garden, large abstract paintings, stainless steel and marble kitchen and an indoor fountain (for the right fang shui, you see): fitting because Frankfurt is the banking centre of Europe, home of the Deutsche Bank and the European Central Bank, and the only city in Europe with a North American skyline. In David Hermann’s Médée, this apartment is the court of Créon, the seat of the king of the Corinthians, as he’s obviously aware that for power to be portrayed truthfully, one shouldn’t really focus on current European nobility (as Christoph Marthaler did in his Duchesse) or even the heads of governments and politicians. Simon Bailey’s Créon walks around in silk housecoats because he doesn’t have to work: his investments work for him. He spends his days indulging his drives and scheming—there’s something of a whiff of imperial decadence for the age of financial capital. While the libretto by Thomas Corneille allows an ambivalent and even sympathetic readings of Créon as a ruler who, caught between conflicting obligations, chooses to do what’s best for his state, this Créon is, and I salute this directorial choice, an unmitigated scumbag. Another sound choice Hermann made was to make clear that the patriarchy remains a constant, whatever the sources of economic power. Créon presides over the members of his household and his dependents with a lecherous flair: Jason is his lover, and he has prospects for Orontes as well. His daughters boobs in one scene drive him to distraction. The only person with no sexual allure for him is Médée herself, who is probably dismissed as an older refugee woman with some weird powers and an even weirder ability to love. He doesn’t really fear Médée until much later in the opera, which makes the act 4 scenes of the punishment of Créon even more effective.
There is a clear distinction between a certain kind of world that everybody else gladly plays their part in, and Médée as its impure outsider. Jason and Créuse, the young couple of hotties at the centre of the drama, don’t fare much better as characters either. Jason, sung with clarity and strength by the baby-faced, thoroughly cute twenty-something tenor Julian Prégardien, is a lying and calculating charmer who enjoys playing the hero and everybody’s favourite son. Créuse the Princess is a blonde airhead coquette who laughs at Médée’s entreaties and knows how to use her good looks for her own benefit. It is to the credit of the soprano Christiane Karg’s singing that for brief moments in various beautiful arias, she manages to make Creuse a character we should care for. Beautiful and sentimental very frequently in this production equals lies, and both characters get a lot of beautiful music, both shared and individual. Also interesting in this regard are the duos of Prégardien and von Otter, in which the young guy sings his untruths in a clear, loud, bell-like ring and his aggrieved wife her sincerity in anguished, shaded, not very loud voice (Otter’s lack of humungous volume is well known. À propos, can we stop dividing voices into ‘big’ and ‘small’ and call them ‘more decibelous’ and ‘less decibelous’ or something? Because, there are many ‘small’ voices that are anything but.)
The chorus is permanently stationed in the orchestra pit and there is absolutely no dance on stage. In Act 1, after Jason and Créon have completed their catching-up and fondling, the arrival of the hero Oronte is announced with a pompous fanfare, but there are no troops of the Corinthians and Argians on stage to distract from the interaction of the three men. Oronte (Sebastian Geyer) is a jock dressed in white polo gear (possibly because in his naiveté he believes in fair play? Cricket, polo, same difference to a German audience). He also wears his war wound proudly: there’s a permanent blood stain just under his heart. Since he states that, while indeed he likes military victories like any other hero, his heart is even more “animé par l’amour” for Créon’s daughter, this stain could arguably also come from his affected heart. The three men have a realpolitik conversation about whose marriage to Créuse would be better for the Corinth (Créon favours Jason and he wants him by his side for other reasons, of course), and musically a glorious fanfare with the chorus of the Corinthians and Argians follows. What happens on stage, meanwhile, is one of the most effective scenes in the opera. Unissons-nous en ce grand jour, sing the three characters joined by the crowd, La gloire et l’amour le demendent. Nous ferons triompher la gloire et l’amour. Créon is intrigued by the young hero in more ways than one, and orders him to pull his shirt up so he can see his wound. Jason observes with equal amount of excitement. Créon comes closer, touches the wound, slides his fingers across it, then parallel to the musical crescendo, pokes his finger in with sexual pleasure. The three men disappear to another room.
Not a production that celebrates military heroism, this one.
There is another interesting if less successful reworking of a difficult-to-contemporize scene in Act 2, when Oronte declares his love to Créuse with Jason and Cleone (here the maid of the household, sung by Sharon Carty) present. According to the libretto—and I’m using here the translation in the liner notes of the William Christie 1992 Médée recording—Orontes gives tribute to the Princess and “a small Argian representing Love appears in a chariot drawn by captives of different nations and sexes.” A character called Une Italienne sings about why we shouldn’t fear the many pains of love and should just jump in. What happens here instead is that Créuse and Cleone emerge dressed in fitness leotards and make a pretense of working out under the gaze of the two excited men. Creuse herself sings Chi teme d’amore, Ilgrato martire, O non vuol gioire, O cuore non hà, ecc. in a sort of narcissistic trance.
In the first half of the opera, Médée is mostly pushed around and ridiculed, which she takes with a lot of hand wringing and even humility. From Act 3’s “Quelle prix de mon amour”, however, the real fun begins. The sadness turns into rage into desire for revenge, and the Médéeization of Médée is one of the best “I am fed up and won’t take it any more” scenes ever made. With the re-employment of her magic powers, the pleasure returns: von Otter’s Medee is in a state of rapture during the play of the demons and later in the course of each individual retribution. The scene of the summoning of the demons of Jealousy (Simon Bode) and Vengeance (Vuyani Mlinde) is a tour de force. The two fixers in cool suits and hairdos will remind people of Quentin Tarantino’s fixer characters, but this is actually pure Michael Haneke and his Funny Games. Jealousy adds his own poison to the dress by peeing on it (I wish the white living room furniture was peed on and more property destroyed, but I will accept that the set can’t be remade every evening. Besides, Médée herself bites the lounge chair in a fit at one point). The Demon of Jealousy also vandalizes a large painting by graffitoing it with an anarchist A in the colour of blood. Their spit starts small fires, so a girl can’t complain too much. Médée dares them to a poisoned dress licking contest, which the two demons lose since they become sick and have to go throw up. She also incites her own evil impulses by rubbing the charms of her necklace against her nose in an urgent, ecstatic gesture.
The rest of the proceedings the demons observe silently from their perches. By the book, Médée kills Créon when he sends his guards to apprehend her and she makes them turn around and attack him instead. Our Créon doesn’t have a private army, and what Hermann came up with is a much better solution. While Médée is singing a gentle, loving call Objets agréables, Fantômes aimables, Appaisez les fureurs, de ces farouches cœurs, two freakish versions of her own sons who’ve overgrown their shorts and school uniforms emerge to horrify Créon to madness. This was the absolute most powerful, moving and disturbing scene in this whole shebang for me. Here goes: While they trap him on the couch and the orchestra plays, Médée seated in the armchair turns on her side and goes into a sort of infantile regression: she takes great pleasure in pacifying herself by sucking her thumb and rubbing her earlobe. The horrific scene is ripe with interpretations. Is she in a way enacting her own children—who will forever remain in the thumb-sucking stage since they’re about to be killed; Or, herr Doktor, is the sorceress Médée herself some sort of a pre- or post-genital, multi-focal sexual body?
Créon goes mad and decides to live in his water fountain. He comes out to stab Oronte to death, then kills himself. Créuse has a final moment of glory when she sings her dying aria and the duo with Jason while wearing a dress that releases smoke (a rather hilarious “Quel feu dans mes veins s’allume” it would be but La Karg defended her Créuse well).
Instead of flying away on a dragon, Médée appears in the last scene wearing some sort of a black knitted (crochéd?) mask with some stuff hanging. I don’t quite get the mask, except that it makes Médée even more scary and sexy, but that’s a good enough reason for a weird mask, so no point in whinging, truth be told.
Von Otter’s wig and costumes are fantastic. The hair looked like natural hair under all kinds of lighting, and was the brunette colour the kind I always thought must be her natural colour (though I’ve been wrong before). I don’t know what pact with the devil she made to look this stunningly amazing at the age of 56, but the pact is obviously working. And I fear seeing von Otter in lead roles will become a diminishing opportunity (she’ll sing a small role in Tamerlano in Barcelona this summer, next year Geneviève in a Paris Pelléas and Cornelia in the Bartoli-Whitsun Cesare, which is a waste of a treasure if you want my opinion, and a Clairon in Paris, which is I suppose a little better).
Among my One or Two Things I Know About Opera is now this: whenever there’s von Otter in the lead role, there’s some good gender politics. How do women tend to react to betrayal, to disempowerment—with depression, or with anger? One of the first fundamental and difficult things that feminism taught me is that you can do something from the position of anger, while very little from the position of devastation. This Médée is a sistah, no doubt about that. Magic does happen when a woman abandons fear.
Remaining performaces inFrankfurt: June 23, 24 and 26.
Note: The Frankfurt Opera doesn’t make the publicity photos available to the media during the run but requires that all, including bloggers, pay the photographer fee. Have a look at the photo gallery, though.