Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Alexandra Deshorties Commanding in Cherubini’s “Medea” – Glimmerglass Opera, August 14, 2011

August 19th, 2011

In 37 seasons, the Glimmerglass Opera Festival has produced a respectable number of 17th and 18th operatic works, with Mozart (represented in 9 season). Handel (7 seasons) and Monteverdi (3 seasons) the best represented composers.  (Cavalli and Purcell also represent the “other” 17th century composers, Gluck, Haydn and Cimarosa, those of the 18th century.)

For the 2011 season, one of the great masterpieces of opera, Cherubini’s “Medea”, was performed in an effective presentation. A work that premiered in 1797, the decade of Mozart’s death, a mere 11 years after his “Marriage of Figaro”, 10 after “Don Giovanni” and 6 after “The Magic Flute”, Cherubini’s work even to the opera goers of today, has the feel of a transitional work between the time of Gluck and Mozart and that of Beethoven’s – particularly, the operatic work that eventually became “Fidelio”.

Cherubini was in his 20s when he was introduced to Queen Marie Antoinette. After the fall of the Monarchy, he composed works to commemorate Napoleon Bonaparte’s successes. He lived to the age of 81, giving him the opportunity to spar on musical theory with the young upstart Hector Berlioz, although the latter gave grudging respect to his by-then musically conservative rival.

That Beethoven expressed his opinion that Cherubini was his greatest contemporary, and that Schumann and Brahms had great praise for him should pique the interest of those not yet familiar with his music.

[Below: The famous Ingres portrait of Marie Louis Cherubini, that hangs in the Louvre in Paris; resized image of the Ingres oil painting.]

Many of us first came to know the work through the famous 1957 recording by Maria Callas (with Mirto Picchi and Renata Scotto in the co-starring roles) at the height of the diva’s vocal powers.

One can make the case that the “Medea” recording was the undoing of Callas in the United States. It was scheduled during a month that she had a contract with the San Francisco Opera to open its 1957 season in the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. However, one cannot commit to recording Medea in Europe and singing Lucia in San Francisco at the same week without disappointing someone.

When she failed to appear for rehearsals, S. F. Opera’s General Director Kurt Herbert Adler enforced a lockout agreement that he had with the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago to ban her from all three opera houses if she reneged on her contract to any one of them. When she finally did return much later to American soil, her vocal condition had become problematic.

I had always suspected that Callas would have performed “Medea” in the U. S. had the brouhaha not occurred (San Francisco Opera’s 1958 season scheduled it, but it was Eileen Farrell who sang it.) But it has rarely been done in American opera houses, and thus the performances in Glimmerglass are of special interest.

The production chose the Italian version (as used in Callas’ recording) over the French, and cast French-Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties as Medea. Perhaps we might think of the spirit of Callas as blessing Deshorties’ performance, because, granting they are different artists in many respects, I found that Deshorties approached the role, both through its phrasing and vocal dynamics and in its incisive acting, in a way that I can imagine Callas in 1957 having done it onstage.

[Below: Alexandra Deshorties as Medea; edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

I had been impressed by Deshorties as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” (an opera that premiered seven years before “Medea”), but Fiordiligi is a role requiring poise and serene control of one’s emotions, particularly when John Cox is your director (see Warhorse Warriors: John Cox’ ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ in S. F. – July 2, 2005).

But Medea controls her emotions only when she is dissembling. For most of the second act, we see Medea in her various stages of fury. Deshorties’ characterization of the distraught ex-wife, for whom revenge coincides with patriotic duty (her husband Jason’s soon-to-be-past and soon-to-be-present fathers-in-law are the sovereigns of warring kingdoms), is chilling.

The disappearance of classical education in most school systems means that, unlike Cherubini, we cannot assume that everyone in the audience will be familiar with all of the Medea backstories, including her going beyond the call of duty to assist her husband Jason and his Argonauts in obtaining the Golden Fleece. (One could list several operas that tangentially relate to this story or to adventures of the Argonauts, either individually or collectively.)

[Below: an annoyed Medea (Alexandra Deshorties) believes that the Argonauts (Glimmerglass Young Artists) have not given her proper respect for what she has done for them; edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

Cherubini’s opera, based on Euripides’ play, concentrates on a few hours of the complex story. King Creon, the enemy of Medea’s father, has arranged for the marriage of Jason (Medea’s husband and father of their two children) to his daughter Glauce. Medea persuades a very suspicious Creon and Jason to allow her to spend one more day with their children in exchange for leaving their island forever.

[Below: King Creon (David Pittsinger, center) blesses the marriage of Jason (Jeffrey Gwaltney, left) and Glauce (Jessica Stavros, right); edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

Medea sends what she suggests is a peace offering as a wedding present to Glauce, but, because it is posioned and kills Glauce, it worsens the already sour relationship between Jason and Medea. She follows it up by an offstage killing of their two children, to the consternation of her faithful servant, Neris.

[Below: Neris (Sarah Larsen) stands over the prostrate body of Medea (Alexandra Deshorties); edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

Besides Deshorties’ Medea, the small cast boasted the sonorous Creon of David Pittsinger, whose previous work at the 2011 Festival I have reviewed elsewhere (see The Pittsingers as the O’Neills in Tesori’s “Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” – Glimmerglass, August 13, 2011.) Also well cast was the Neris, nicely sung by Young Artist Sarah Larsen.

The roles of Jason and Glauce were originally assigned to artists who withdrew after the early performances, respectively because of injury and illness. They were both replaced by large-voiced Young Artists, Jeffrey Gwaltney (Jason) and Jessica Stavros (Glauce), both of whom were challenged by the task of adjusting the volumes of their voices to the 900+ seat Alice Busch auditorium, but both of whom seemed destined for promising careers.

Gwaltney, with much to sing with the veteran Deshorties is well on his way to right-sizing his voice for the Glimmerglass theater. Stavros’ vocal abilities have already been recognized overseas, resulting in a two year contract with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duesseldorf.

The orchestra was conducted in a rousing, spirited style by Daniele Rustioni. Michael Barker-Caven, the stage director and Joe Vanek, who developed the Sets and Costumes, assured fast-flowing action. Cherubini contributed melodious, and often highly dramatic music.

I recommend the Glimmerglass “Medea” without qualifications.

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