Discovering Charpentier’s “Médée”

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CHARPENTIER: Médée / Magdalena Kožená, soprano (Médée); Anders J. Dahlin, haute-contre (Jason); Luca Tittoto, bass (Créon); Meike Hartmann, soprano (Créuse, his daughter); Robin Adams, baritone (Oronte); Silke Gäng, soprano (Nérine); Yukie Sato, soprano (Italian Woman); Jenny Högström, soprano (First Ghost); Regina Dahlen, soprano (Second Ghost); Tiago Pinheiro de Olivieira, tenor (Corinthian I/La Jalousie); Daniel Issa, tenor (Corinthian II); Ismael Arróniz, bass (Un Argien/La Vengeance); Santiago Garzon, baritone (La Vengeance); La Cetra – Barockorchester Basel; Vokalensemble Basel; Andrea Marcon, conductor / available for free streaming on YouTube (live: Basel, January 6, 2015)

Having recently discovered Nadia Boulanger’s album of highlights from this opera, I went online to try to find a good complete recording of the work, but was greatly disappointed in listening to both of conductor William Christie’s recordings. His conducting was weak and prissy, with none of the “bite” or rhythmic impetus of the Boulanger recording, and his singers all sounded as if they didn’t give a crap. Thus I despaired finding a serviceable version of this work until I came across this performance on YouTube.

The stage production, as is usual nowadays, is idiotic and at times perverted (of course Créon and his men are dressed like Nazi soldiers, and at one point when Médée is singing, a toy panda walks across the stage for no apparent reason, and at the 53-minute mark some bimbo cones out with a spotlight on her doing some kind of a sexy dance), and thus does not bear watching, but the musical aspects of the opera are very well handled indeed. Of the various principals, only bass Luca Tittoto as Créon is sub-par, having a somewhat rough and fluttery voice, though he characterizes well. All of the other principals are very fine indeed, particularly Anders J. Dahlin as Jason, who is far better than the singer on the Boulanger recording. That is because, in this version of the opera, Jason is sung not by a tenor but by a haut-contre, a very high and specialized French vocal range that lies between tenor and mezzo-soprano. Even nowadays we have very few excellent haut-contre singers who can perform such roles, but in 1953 when Boulanger made her recording, the only one around was Russell Oberlin, and he wasn’t part of her ensemble.

CharpentierAs for the music, it is fascinating and very well written. Charpentier did an excellent job of setting the text to music and making it work dramatically. The problem is that he and his librettist, Thomas Corneille, unfortunately chose to set almost the entire play to music rather than compressing it as Luigi Cherubini did a century later. This was a mistake on their part; even Monteverdi telescoped Orfeo ed Euridice for his early opera, as did Gluck a century and a half later. What takes about 75 minutes to perform as a spoken stage play takes, here, nearly two and a half hours to get through as a sung opera, and although, as I say, the music is generally excellent, it’s just a bit too much to make an effective opera.

Which doesn’t mean that it should be ignored or never performed, only that it may be wiser in the future to perform it in an abridged fashion. Even Leonard Bernstein, with the cooperation and agreement of soprano Maria Callas, abridged Cherubini’s Medea somewhat when they performed it in 1953, and in fact it is the Bernstein-Callas abridgement that most opera audiences are familiar with, not only through Callas’ own studio recording and live performances but also through the performances of the opera by Leyla Gencer, Magda Olivero, Eileen Farrell and other sopranos of the late 20th century.

But to return to what Charpentier actually wrote and why it is so good, it is because here, in 1693, he was already writing very dramatic strophic recitatives that had melodic lines and yet could be emphasized by the singers to express the passion of the words, and this feature is even in the very first scene of the opera. And when he chooses to write some really dramatic music, as for instance Médée’s solo at about the one-hour mark in this video, he grabs your attention because it is not a constant feature of the music. Interestingly, although there is not a single French singer in the cast—the one star name here, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, sings the title role, while the other singers are either Scandinavian, Italian, German, Spanish, German or Japanese (Yukie Sato as the Italian Woman), they all have that characteristic fast vibrato that was so typical of French singers from Charpentier’s era up through the late 20th century, and this, too, adds to the color of the singing.

In addition, having the whole opera to listen to and not just 37 minutes’ worth of highlights fills in the gaps that Boulanger unfortunately had to work around, thus one gets a much better idea of how Charpentier filled in each act. I’m also wondering (since I don’t actually know) whether or not this was the first opera to use a full chorus and not just a handful of singers posing as one.

More to the point, each singer in this cast, even the one or two sub-par ones, all act out the words, creating real characters onstage rather than just “nice voices singing the notes properly,” and this works wonders in a work as old as this one. Indeed, the longer I listened to this performance the more amazed I was that it was written so long ago; it almost sounds like a Rameau opera from about 1745 than something from a half-century earlier.

Of course, the conducting has a lot to do with the impact that the music creates. In addition to suffering through both of Christie’s wet noodle recordings, I also groaned when listening to another live performance on YouTube conducted by Hervé Niquet. His conducting is so wimpy that he makes Christie sound like Boulanger, and his singers are not only worse than in this Marcon performance but also worse than Christie’s (not only weak and ineffectual voices, but with wobbles and vocal strain), so before any of my readers start telling me that singers today are much better than in the past, let me disillusion you. By and large, they’re not, but in addition to Kožená, both Dahlin and Jason and German soprano Meike Hartmann as Créuse are first-rate.

Kozena

Kožená as Medea

Putting Médée in the capable hands (and voice) of Kožená was one of the smartest moves the casting director made. Her performance is utterly spellbinding, bringing out all the various moods and shades of meaning in the dramatic situation without ever exaggerating the music, plus she has the required trills and shakes written into the role.

Thanks in part to Charpentier’s music and in part to Marcon’s conducting, once the music really gets rolling it moves along at a good clip, absorbing all the scenes and making both musical and dramatic sense of them.

I seriously recommend that you download this performance at your earliest convenience (before it disappears from YouTube forever) and burn it to CD. It is clearly a first-rate performance of some very first-rate music and, thanks to the superb performances of the three principals, it seldom gets bogged down so much that you can’t enjoy and appreciate its many fine points.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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