Medea – ENO. Review by Julia Pascal.

David McVicar’s brilliant production of Medea fights hard to combat the undramatic quality of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s formal musical composition.  The central problem is the struggle between the intense drama of the original Greek myth; realised in Euripides’ tragedy where Medea, the sorceress queen kills her sons and murders her rival with a poisoned dress; and the monotony of the 1693 French score.

The narrative, as exposed by Euripides’ thrilling text is fast, exciting and taboo-breaking.  A mother, who destroys her two sons to punish her unfaithful husband, speaks to us across the centuries.  A wronged wife, who then demolishes her rival offering her a poisoned wedding dress, gives us a double hit of shadenfreude.

So while the original drama and the staging is exciting, the flat quality of Charpentier’s music is a hindrance.  Thomas Corneille’s original seventeenth century libretto, translated here by Christopher Cowell, also adds to the dilemma.  The English text is rather nineteenth century and so jars with the  McVicar’s VE day aesthetic.  It is odd that there is no symmetry between the visuals and the translated text.  We have US pilots and gendarmes from de Gaulle’s France.  There is even a US army plane with propellers onstage which quite grates with a libretto rooted in archaic English.

However the orchestra is strong under Christian Curnym’s sensitive direction and the singing is sublime.  Sarah Connolly is a weighty Medea who convinces as both a royal and a sorceress.  Jeffrey Francis as Jason, Katherine Manley as Creusa, Roderick Williams as Orontes and Rhoan Lois as Nerina are magnetic.  There are longeurs when the repetitive stops and the dancers come on to fill stage-music time when I longed for scissors.  But the performance mostly holds, because of the imaginative ways McVicar and his team (designers Bunny Christie and Paule Constable’s lighting) compensate for a score which should have been left in the archives.

Julia Pascal © 2013.