It’s all opera all the time here at the moment! My recent visit to see ENO’s production of Charpentier’s Medea was a Christmas present, because you can never get too much of classical reception. This is another example of receptions overlapping receptions (which I’ve talked about before) – not only does this production offer a chance to unpick Charpentier’s adaptation of the Medea myth (and the approach taken by his librettist, Corneille), but also to think about the ENO’s staging and production choices. Before I get into that, however, I should take a moment to encourage you to get to one of the remaining performances if you possibly can. Yes, it is a long opera – the French habit of inserting ballet at every possible opportunity means that the score might be considered a little on the cumbersome side. But the music is divine. Sarah Connolly gives us an utterly credible, passionate and bristling Medea, and the chemistry between her and Brindley Sherratt’s Creon during the pivotal scene when he orders her out of Corinth crackles with electricity. The other singers are also exceptionally fine (a slight tightness in the top register of Jeffrey Francis’ Jason faded as the evening went on, and in fairness I was at the first performance), and the orchestra do a fabulous job – not least the two theorbo players, an instrument I can’t ever recall seeing in the wild before but which add a very special timbre to the musical atmosphere. Finally, the ballet sequences are handled wonderfully. They demonstrate a light hand, with a touch of archness that hint at the production’s awareness that this is (for a modern audience) rather silly, combined with enough eroticism to echo the reason the ballet sections were originally introduced – to keep the elite young men in the audience visually stimulated.
Now, to the classical reception content. I want to start by thinking about the changes that Corneille made to the original plot – which aren’t as drastic as one might expect. The overall structure of the drama cleaves very closely to that of Euripides, particularly in the final scene where Medea reveals to Jason that his children are dead. However, there are a number of other interesting changes in the basic plot structure. The one that stands out most to me is that Creusa, Creon’s daughter, is quite frequently on stage, and is given her own personality and motivations. This is a major departure from the Euripidean original, where Creusa never appears on stage (and is in fact never named), and her grisly death from poisoned gifts is reported through a particularly graphic messenger speech. This is mainly to do with the convention that Greek tragedy places deaths off-stage, but that in and of itself doesn’t prevent Creusa from appearing – indeed, one imagines the fight that Euripides would have written for the two women and mourns the lost opportunity. Bringing Creusa on-stage allows Corneille and Charpentier to stage this confrontation, as well as more subtle interactions between the two women, but also allows them to create a relationship between Creusa and Jason, adding to the audience’s sense of his spinelessness.
The other major plot change is that the context of the play is altered. In Euripides’ original, Medea and Jason are just hanging around Corinth; in Corneille’s version, Corinth is gearing up for a war with Acastus of Thessaly, hot on Medea’s tail after her outrages there, and the couple need to keep Creon and Creusa on side so that they and their sons will be protected. This shift also allows for the introduction of a rival for Creusa’s hand, the prince Orontes of Argos, who has come to provide military support to Corinth and to marry Creusa, to whom he is formally betrothed. This has a number of interesting knock-on effects, not least of which is the added complication of the Jason/Creusa relationship when she’s meant to be betrothed to someone else and he’s meant to be married to someone else – Creon is quite happy to ignore both of these prior commitments and string the spare partners along, so when he eventually gets driven mad I have to say I didn’t feel terribly sympathetic. The second effect is that Orontes takes on the Aegistus role from Euripides and promises Medea a safe haven when she leaves Corinth – a promise that is rather less effective at the end of this opera, as Orontes has been stabbed by the insane Creon, but there we are. He also serves as a partner to her grief and frustration at Creusa and Jason’s betrayal, providing some balance to the piece. Finally, his inclusion ups the political content and relevance of the opera – it heightens the dimension of realpolitik manouvering, as Creon tries to work out how to keep his ally happy and obtain military victory whilst ensuring the most advantageous marriage for his daughter in the long term. It’s this aspect, I think, that speaks most interestingly to the context of the opera’s composition; it was first performed in 1693, and began with a prologue in praise of Louis XIV (omitted from the ENO’s production). This was a time when the royal houses of Europe were swapping sons and daughters in alliance marriages with considerable care and deliberation; the choice to generate this element of diplomatic juggling, and its dramatic failure, must have had a certain political resonance for the contemporary audience.
And so to the ENO’s adaptation. The most interesting choice, in some ways, that they’ve made is to set the opera in the Second World War, and designate each nation as a different country – so the Corinthians are French, Jason and his troops are British, and Orontes and the men from Argos are fabulously brash American airmen (flying in to save the day!). This works with the underlying civic context of the libretto by really foregrounding that political element of the opera; as a directorial choice, it’s very effective. It also implies some unspoken cultural differences between Jason and Orontes. Jason, for instance, sings to Creusa in moments of private passion, all very Brief Encounter; Orontes, by contrast, declares his love through a spectacular party and floor show, involving a Weimar-esque singing Cupid, a crooning lounge singer, and a set of ballet dancers dressed as sailors, American car mechanics, and 1940s magazine pin-ups with a bit of extra raunch. (There’s a video of the process of building Cupid’s plane here if you want to get a feel for it.) One feels quite sympathetic for Creusa’s preference for something a bit less ostentatious. The choice to make the men from Argos American airmen also plays into a set of British assumptions about what the Americans stationed here were like during the Second World War, and that sets up a particular dynamic of interaction that maps onto the libretto very effectively.
I should mention an interesting point about the ENO’s casting. Creusa, in Euripides’ play, is a young girl; Medea, when Jason meets her, is a young girl, and he is a young man – say, perhaps, 16 and 20? A little difference, but not a great deal. I have always presumed that Medea is in her mid-20s, Jason his early 30s, and Creusa her late teens for the plot of the Medea, particularly given the ancient world’s usual practice of fairly early childbearing. However, the ENO doesn’t follow this. Their Creusa is presumably in her early 20s; their Medea is in her late 30s/early 40s – and Jason. Oh, Jason. Jason is at least early 40s, if not quite a bit older. Put simply, they have deliberately worked the casting so that Jason is old enough to be Creusa’s father, and the comparison with a boyish Orontes serves to foreground the age difference. This makes a number of differences to the production, most obviously the rather unhealthy possessive attitude Creon has to his daughter (of which she, thankfully, seems blissfully unaware), which both provides the route for Medea to drive him mad and a psychological motivation for Creusa to find Jason as attractive as she does. However, it also plays into the well-known trope of older men abandoning their wives for a younger model – with the Chris Huhne/Vicky Pryce affair floating around, again, this aspect of the plot gains a certain resonance and relevance, and the acting out of the consequences become that little bit more poignant.
As for the presentation of Medea’s witchcraft itself, the ENO has made the excellent decision to ditch realism and go for the full-on zombie nurse spirits rising from the underworld approach when Medea invokes hell and poisons the dress she will give Creusa. The whole point of the Medea myth is to highlight the dreadfulness of the unknown and the dark – to do anything less that bring the witchcraft to the stage would have neutered the production. The ENO’ s staging keeps the ghastly and the grotesque (mainly through clever choreography), but also lets the opera properly move into the realm of the mythical. The scene where Medea torments Creon is similarly carefully managed, in that there’s enough overlap of reality with magic to indicate a sense of wavering boundaries which Medea controls; the final scene, which closes with Medea ascending on a plinth as Jason mourns over the dead bodies of his sons, again retains the Euripidean sense of a dark world which the gods have abandoned, tying in well with the underlying WWII themes of the production. Medea’s costume also represents her shift from following human laws to playing by her own rules. When she has decided to call up hell, she removes her heels and neat twin piece, and instead stamps around the stage barefoot in a black shift. Her transition is even more marked as this is the moment she decides to hand over a shimmering silver ballgown to Creusa, its poison only to be activated if Creusa will not give Jason up and marry Orontes – which, of course, she will not. The symbolism of clothing thus becomes a marker of status, of Medea’s move away from the laws of humanity as represented by Creon into the otherworldly power that up to this point she has kept in reserve, and of Creusa’s slow but inexorable journey towards her tortuous death.
Let me repeat myself – go and see it if you possibly can, or if you can’t, watch out for a revival of the production. This one deserves to be taken off the shelf again in the future.