This review was posted on 23 May 1994.
I was in Brooklyn on Saturday night, to see Médéeof Charpentier by Les Arts Florissants.
One word: fabulous. Capsule: if you read E. Rothstein's review in the NYT 5/21, I agree with what he said.
Now to endulge myself. I'll repeat things that many of you know already, but they are important elements to appreciate such a production. Medee was first (and last) performed at the Paris Opera in 1693, and was performed 10 times, an honest achievement but not a success. Although it is very méuch in the style of Lully, the lullist party found it too Italian, it did not enter the Opera's repertoire, and it was not revived until this decade.
Among the objections made at the time (and since: see J. Anthony's book on baroque) is the libretto, which is admittedly involved. Médée and Jason, pursued by their enemies, find refuge in Corinth; the local king, to secure the help of Argos, has hinted that his daughter Creüse might marry the king of Argos. In fact, Creüse and Jason are in love and want to marry. They (and the Corinthian king Créon) are thus deceiving both Medee and the Argian king Oronte. Médée realizes this, and her revenge unfolds: she informs Oronte, she makes Créon mad (in his madness, Créon kills Oronte and himself), she poisons Creuse, and she kills her children to make Jason suffer more.
What the libretto does allow is the appearance of an extraordinary character. Medee is in turn lover, mother, and "woman scorned". Think of Bellini's Norma, except that Médée goes all the way. The music will follow her in these different stages. What's more, she is a sorceress, and her awesome power is evoked very early in the opera with chilling music. When she brews a poison for her rival, she summons creatures of the Styx to assist her, and they dance as they perform their rituals. The magic can also be beguiling: when Créon tries to have Médée arrested, the guards are taken over by phantoms who charm them: the phantoms are accompanied by the sweetest music played on the winds only (no bass).
The music also presents us with love duets, between Jason and Creüse. In the end, as Creüse is dying, Jason comes to her, and their final duet is heart-wrenching: the music reaches the funeral beauty of Dido's "When I am no more" in Purcell.
It may be at first difficult to get "into" the opera because of its Lullist character. Lully created a genre that is not quite opera, but rather theatre with music, where the text, in standard French verse, is declaimed over a subservient music. The rythm is imposed by the verse, and limpidity of the text is paramount. (For contrast, Charpentier has a piece of Italian music sung, in Italian, during the second act ballet). On the other hand, the Lully opera required fabulous costumes and grand staging, and this we had in Brooklyn. The costumes were magnificent, evoking the splendors of Versailles (of course, in Charpentier's time the actors would have been dressed in exotic pseudo-antique costumes, not in everyday clothes: but their daily normality is our exotic distance). In particular, the feast scene which is shown on the ad for Medee, in the second act, was marvelous: the princes and nobility seated at the table, facing us as Louis XIV faced his public of courtiers in Versailles, and the extraordinary ballet of waiters, officers, tasters flowing in intricate circles around the table, bringing sumptuous (and edible! a bishop was spotted munching on a dried apricot) platters. Then, a divertissement was offered, showing the nations subdued by Love.
This was the other fabulous aspect of the show: the dances, reconstructed or rather re-invented by Béatrice Massin using 17th century dance movements. For those who haven't seen Baroque dances, it is worth seeing. There is much less jumping and prancing than in 19th c. classical ballet: everything stays closer to the ground, and grace is the key element. French opera retained a lot of dancing until late in the 19th c., and this goes back to Lully again, more accurately to Louis XIV himself, who was a wonderful dancer.
The NYT review found it lengthy at times: I did not. I was enthralled from beginning to end. The music, performed divinely by the Arts Florissants, was lively, captivating, picturesque, beautiful at all times. The dances were splendid, I especially enjoyed the ethereal phantoms spell-binding the guards. The voices were all good, but I don't think this music is the kind that show-cases voices that much (in fact, Lully's singers were really actors with good voices). Lorraine Hunt was fabulous in her role: she was able to sing the most moving solo ("Quel prix de mes amours") where Medee laments her fate, with perfect phrasing and intentity. But when she warned that she'd show Jason "ce qu'est Médée et son pouvoir", chills ran down my spine; and her last words: "pleure a jamais les maux que ta flamme a causes", I was was horrified. When Jason sees his murdered children and cries "Barbare", L. Hunt's reply, shrieked more than sung: "Infidele!" was so powerful, and we all stopped breathing. (If this opera were shown more often, there would be less mid-life crises with ageing heroes running off with cocktail waitresses. Man, you feel committed after that.)
So what was wrong? Well, one thing: the prologue. It was customary at the time to have a prologue exalting the virtues of the monarch: not very interesting verse, at first sight, and the director, whose work is on all other counts remarkable, shied away, and overlaid a staging that 1) had nothing to do with the words being sung, 2) made no sense in of itself. He felt compelled to have an apology inserted in the program we were handed out, but I didn't buy it.
On the contrary, he could have had a lot of fun with the prologue. After all, the text does two things: extoll "le plus puissant des rois", King Louis, and sing the merits of fickle love. But: Médée sure nails fickle love, and at the end of the opera Corinth is in flames, all kings are dead because of their own duplicity. Moreover, as of 1693 1) Louis XIV is not exactly triumphant, having engaged France in a costly and painful war against Europe; 2) he's just been hitched with Mme de Maintenon, so hanky-panky is out from now on for L the 14. In fact, just a few years earlier the official mistress, Mme de Montespan, afraid of losing her royal lover, had hired a self-proclaimed magician to bring him back with love potions. The ensuing scandal (l'affaire des poisons) brought her disgrace (and the magician was executed if memory serves). A spurned mistress resorting to magic? Topical, I should say. All this to say that Jean-Marie Villegier could have had a field day exploiting the multi-layered irony of the Prologue (which may be one of the reasons the opera failed at the time). Even without laying out the whole historical context, the stark contrast between the prologue and the tragedy was worth playing on.
My other (very minor) gripe was diction. I followed the male singers pretty well, but the female singers often had me guessing: I had to use the supertitles and engage in back-translation (using rimes and the conventions of the time to reconstitute the verse). I wish the text had been a bit more transparent, but that may require too much sarifice in the singing, and may also be impossible in a medium-sized theater like the Brooklyn Academy of Music (the Paris Opera seated 1500, but it was small: 60' by 40' by 30').
Other than that, I had no regrets, the evening was one of the most memorable. Music is not an universal language, far from it: and this music is from a specific time and a specific place. That it should enjoy the success it does in this land, at this time, is a testimony to the powers of Christie and Villegier. Christie is one of those few people who have made a tremendous impact on French culture these last years. I say he's a genius. And he is bringing back to us the geniuses of the past.