Colchis — even the very name upsets Dirce, so much so that the martial chorus that the assembled guests have struck up in honour of Jason and his young bride in the first scene of Luigi Cherubini’s Médée breaks off abruptly. Colchis is the home of Medea, somewhere at the edge of the civilized world; and Medea is not simply the name of the woman whom Jason has abandoned, taking their two children with him in order to begin a new life in Corinth, the kingdom of Dirce’s father Creon. Echoing as it were in Dirce’s fearful reaction is the deep disquiet that the deeds of the mythological figure of Medea have aroused for two-and-a-half millennia: after helping Jason to obtain the muchcoveted Golden Fleece in Colchis, betraying her fatherland for love of the Greek hero, perhaps even murdering her brother, Medea followed Jason to Iolcos and was said to have been responsible for the death of his royal uncle. In Corinth, betrayed and humiliated, she finally resorts to extremes: determined to make her husband suffer the ultimate punishment, she will not only slay his new wife but also her own children, fathered by Jason.
At the start of the opera the vision of dread that Medea represents for Dirce and the people of Corinth can proliferate all the more easily as Medea — unlike in Euripides’ famous dramatization of the subject — has been abandoned by Jason in a far-off place. Being absent, she offers a welcome projection surface against which Jason in particular can redeem himself. When Medea then suddenly appears in Corinth in the flesh during the wedding celebrations and begins the first of her two great arias, librettist and composer foil the expectations that have been created. We encounter a desperate mother whose children have been wrested from her, who turns imploringly to Jason. She loves him still, and the reproach of ingratitude — ‘Ingrat!’ — that erupts from her repeatedly is born of profound mortification.
Cherubini’s opera largely dispenses with the magical and supernatural aspects of the mythical figure. Here Medea is not a witch but a ‘normal’ woman — intelligent and passionate, strong and capable of loving; human above all else. Under these prem- ises her inner development towards catastrophe demands a perspective that takes nothing as inevitable or determined by fate. Simon Stone, whose production of Aribert Reimann’s Lear was a highlight of the 2017 Salzburg Festival, will explore in a decidedly contemporary context how it is possible for Medea to act as she does. How does it come to that deed — carried out in anything but a rampage — that in the breaking of an ultimate taboo constitutes the egregious offence of this figure: the killing of her own children? What part in the events is played by patriarchal paternalism and traditional gender assignations? What is the relevance of the conditions for Medea’s existence in Corinth and her position as foreigner, which is used against her?
First performed in Paris in 1797, Médée, the magnum opus of the Italian-French composer Luigi Cherubini, examines the inner workings of the title character as if under a magnifying glass, conveying them with extreme precision. Medea dominates the stage to a greater degree than the main protagonist of an opera had ever done before: from the moment she first appears she is present on stage almost throughout, making us witnesses to her painful and intense altercations with Jason, her memories of past happiness, her emotional struggles. The concentrated plot, the focussing of events into a small number of powerful scenes and the vast dimensions of most of the musical numbers correspond to an ideal of rigour and monumentality that is also reflected in many neoclassical buildings and paintings. Médée impressively realizes the vision of a newly created tragedy for music that is pervaded by the spirit and pathos of antiquity and at the same time points forward to the music drama of the 19th century. One of the early admirers of the opera from its first performances in Vienna in 1803 was Ludwig van Beethoven; even as late as 1823 he wrote to Cherubini that he prized his ‘works more than all others written for the stage’.
Translation: Sophie Kidd