Granted, Medea Is A Murderer, But Her Kids Are Dolls

Günter Papendell as Jason and Nicole Chevalier as Medea in Aribert Reimann’s ‘Medea’ in Berlin.
(Photos by Monika Rittershaus)
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN — In Aribert Reimann’s Medea, the fate not just of of her family but also of the orchestra lies under the heroine’s power. Destructive as she is, the listener cannot help but get swept up in Medea’s emotional world: Raw percussion evokes ancient rituals where sacrifice is imminent, high-pitched winds a hysteria about to break to the surface, rumbling low strings the earth where her two children will be laid to rest.

Nicole Chevalier as Medea.

Following its 2010 premiere at the Vienna State Opera and a subsequent performance that year in Frankfurt, Reimann’s opera arrived at the Komische Oper here on May 21 in a new staging by Australian director Benedict Andrews. The production opens a small, city-wide tribute to the Berlin-born Reimann which continues with performances of his chamber opera Gespenstersonate at the Staatsoper in Schillertheater June 25-July 9 and, this October, the world premiere of L’invisible at the Deutsche Oper.

Reimann is both a skilled orchestrator and writer for the voice. Medea, his seventh opera, was originally conceived for coloratura soprano Marlis Petersen but finds a consummate interpreter in Komische Oper ensemble member Nicole Chevalier. Roughly based on the 19th-century play by Franz Grillparzer, Reimann’s self-fashioned libretto focuses on Medea’s psychology as a foreigner who is driven to the unthinkable: Rather than lose her children to Creusa, the girlfriend of Jason (Medea’s husband), she chooses to take the children’s lives and flee with the Golden Fleece back to Delphi.

A female counterpart to Reimann’s Lear — his most successful opera with over 30 productions since its 1978 premiere — Medea creates a dark, psychological realm where the human spirit is in a perpetual state of angst. The Komische Oper production, however, is more memorable musically than for its staging. Andrews brings to life strong emotional characterizations and at times responds impressively to the score’s cues, but the visuals leave much to be desired (sets: Johannes Schütz). Against the bowels of backstage (black brick walls and stage machinery in all their glory), a hut constructed of string stands downstage in a pile of dirt, while two plastic dolls stand in as Medea’s children.

It was a shame to see Chevalier’s appropriately desperate performance lost as she clutched the lifeless objects to her breast. An audience member behind me chuckled when she took a knife not just to the dolls’ throat but also to the skeleton of a house that she cuts down in the last scene. Perhaps the symbolism is too literal: It is clear in the story that Medea’s existence in Corinth is precarious. Rejected by Jason, exiled by King Creon, the shelter that she once offered to her children has no future.

A scene from ‘Medea’ at the Komische Oper in Berlin.

Despite the production’s weak points, Chevalier was an indomitable presence, executing Reimann’s incessantly melismatic lines with all the firework virtuosity and dramatic conviction that the title role demands. Günther Papendell brought a polished, seductive baritone to the role of Jason, taunting Medea and pushing her down on the ground after she attempts to win him over by playing the lyre. Mezzo-soprano Anna Bernacka was an appropriately haughty Creusa, wielding florid coloratura passages over her rival and strutting past her with imperial entitlement.

Alto Nadine Weissmann was a grounding force as Medea’s wet nurse, consoling her with a mature, earthy timbre. As the Herald, Eric Jurenas came to Medea’s rescue with a polished countertenor that broke through the inescapable sense of darkness. Tenor Ivan Turšić, in the role of King Creon, took some time to warm up his upper range but by Part Two was on the level of the rest of the singers.

The house orchestra under Steven Sloane gave a diligent, vivid performance that did justice to the entire range of Reimann’s textures. Further immersing the listener in Medea‘s soundscape, gongs were placed in the outer aisles, while the sounds that came from the pit were always well balanced, from wailing brass to rumbling strings. As Sloane points out in program notes, Reimann writes for a large orchestra (including 24 violins, six basses, four horns, and three trumpets) but works mostly with chamber vignettes.

Only harp and celesta underscore Jason in his final soliloquy, while Medea announces the death of their children to the accompaniment of two violins. Extremes of range also create an enormous psychological space: “The dream is over/but not yet the night,” the opera concludes to a rising piccolo and sustained basses. Reimann’s music may be more intellectually stimulating than it is pleasing to the ear, but he offers a brutally honest portrait, forcing the listener to confront his or her own demons.

Medea runs through July 15. For tickets, click here.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.