Monday, July 09, 2012


Bayerische Staatsoper
Münchner Opern Festspiele
1 JULY 2012


Ramon Vargas, Nadja Michael
Musikalische Leitung Ivor Bolton
Inszenierung Hans Neuenfels
Bühne Anna Viebrock
Kostüme Elina Schnizler
Licht Michael Bauer
Dramaturgie Rainer Karlitschek
Chor Sören Eckhoff

Creonte Alastair Miles
Egeo Emanuele D'Aguanno
Medea Nadja Michael
Giasone Ramón Vargas
Creusa Laura Tatulescu
Evandro Kenneth Roberson
Tideo Francesco Petrozzi
Ismene Golda Schultz

Bayerisches Staatsorchester
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

As told by Euripides, the legend of Medea is nothing if not operatic, a tabloid tale made for singing:  After saving the life of the warrior-adventurer Jason, even to the point of killing her father and brother, the princess of Colchis Medea runs off with him, marries him, bears him children and settles down with him in Corinth.   But Jason eventually abandons Medea, when he plans to further himself by wedding Cruesa, the daughter of Corinth’s king, Creon. In an effort to forestall any trouble Medea may cause, Creon banishes Medea.  Before she departs Corinth, though, Medea sets fire to Cruesa and kills her own children.

The Bavarian State Opera enjoyed considerable success two years ago, when it mounted Hans Neuenfels’ production of Medea in Corinto (1813), a rarely performed opera by  Johann Simon Mayr (1783-1845), a prolific composer, who was born in Germany, but made his career in Italy.  Now, the opera is being showcased as part of Munich’s annual Opera Festival.

Mayr composed about 60 works for the lyric stage, and many of them were huge hits during his lifetime, but most of his compositions are forgotten today.  Guesses on why his biggest success Medea in Corinto has come to be performed so rarely are at best desultory.   But witness Nadja Michael in the title roles, and you find a couple of key clues.   She is a dramatic coloratura, who is comfortable in all registers.  She can turn on a theatrical dime from piteous to unpardonable.  Michael seems also to be inexhaustible, though she strays from pitch here and there, and she commands the stage whenever she appears.  Who else can do all that these days?  There are few sopranos of Michael’s calibre and even fewer who would put their voices at such risk to learn the role.  (Small wonder: the part was composed to challenge Isabella Colbran.)  Leyla Gencer and Marisa Galvany are two who tried and, say some, succeeded. 

With such a powerhouse to compete with, singers might think twice before learning the other roles.  But Ramon Vargas has the star power and the vocal requirements to portray Giasone as more than a cheap hustler.  His voice also appears to be maturing in the lower register without foregoing brilliance at the top.  Alastair Miles is a cool and mean Creonte.   Emanuele D’Aguanno is at his finest in the florid passages assigned to Egeo, Cruesa’s erstwhile suitor.  The role may well exceed the vocal demands made of Giasone, for Mayr composed the part for no less than Manuel Garcia the Senior.  American-born Laura Tutulescu makes a meal out of the crumby role that Cruesa must play out in the battle between Medea and Giasone.  She shone in her long aria “Caro albergo in cui felice ad amari incominciai,” accompanied brilliantly on stage by Maria Clearly on a period-style harp.
Julis Drausecker, Nadja Michael

Mayr’s unusual instrumentation also includes a violin solo that accompanies Medea’s big monologue “Sommi Dei, chi i guiramenti de’ mortali custodite,” played with virtuoso sovereignty by Julia Dausacker -- again  on stage.   The demands made by the solo instrumental parts Mayr composed may also go some way toward explaining why Medea in Corinto has disappeared from the standard repertory.  Musicians with the requisite musical razzle and the technical dazzle for what essentially are cameos tend to be rare in any age.

Also hard to find are conductors who are committed to unearthing the treasures in scores that don't readily play themselves out.  But Ivor Bolton is an unusual musician, having made it to the big stages of the current opera scene, after slogging in the backwoods of Great Britain for many years with several opera touring companies.  He’s learned his craft the hard way.  His enthusiasm for the work infects the players of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, and they respond with many exciting moments that might elude a less amicable collaboration.

All the more remarkable in the face of Hans Neuenfels’ elaborate, sometimes distracting production.  His view of the story centers (correctly, in my view) on the fear Medea generates, now that she is persona non grata and about to be banished.  That fear is exacerbated, according to Neuenfells, by violence and the scapegoating of Medea, stemming from the disintegration of Corinth into an unstable, corrupt state.  But Medea ultimately shows her hostile coevals a thing or two about perpetrating violence.  If that weren't enough, Neuenfels appears to take particular delight in interpolating all kinds of savagery against the backdrop of a massive triple-tier set-- designed by Anna Viebrock -- topped off by a temple in the classical style.  Lest the relevance of Neuenfels' views to recent and comtemporary history be overlooked, Elina Schnitzler’s costumes and wigs for the women are 1930s retro-chic.

Euripides' political concerns are of less concern to Mayr and his librettist Felice Romani than Medea’s failed relationship with Jason and her isolation among Corinthians.  Not for nothing is “in Corinth” included in their title.  In their hands, she also becomes that rarity among hero/heroine types of the 19th century:  a Byronic hero in drag.  The opera received its premiere in Naples at the onset of the furor Lord Byron was igniting throughout Europe with the publication of his metrical romances, in which his alienated heroes rattle the social systems to which they find themselves opposed.  Unlike most of Byron’s romance heroes, though, Medea stands up to the Establishment and lives to tell about it.

As a purely musical experience, Mayr’s opera may also be problematic for today’s listeners because its sound profile is somewhat vague.  On one hand, it harkens back to the crystalline elegance of Mozart’s opera seria and avoids Cherubini's gallery-directed outbursts (Ho dato tutto a te!).  On the other hand, it looks forward to the gutsier bel canto inventions of Mayr’s most famous pupil Gaetano Donizetti.  But the Bavarian State Opera's revival is oddly fascinating, if you can overlook some excesses in Neuenfels’ provocative staging. 

How ever you may regard Neuenfels' views on Medea in Corinto, the opera and the legend that inspired it make gripping theater.  Medea is arguably the Mother of all Outsiders.  She is the matron of abandoned wives, the doyenne of single mothers and probably the Cain of kiddie killers.  Her rap sheet also includes patricide, fratricide and sundry other homicides.  Nice lady.

Note: The production is available on DVD, but it is an event filtered through a video director and sound engineers. It is a poor substitute for experiencing the opera live. 

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At 4/18/2013 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maria Cleary was the harpist, see


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