BERLIN – It is one of opera’s epic mad scenes. Spurned by Jason after helping him steal the Golden Fleece and denied the right to bring her children into exile, Medea swears revenge. In Cherubini’s version of the Greek myth, Médée, which opened the season at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden on Oct. 7, she not only kills her own offspring and Jason’s bride, Dircé, but takes her own life.
The opera is best known to modern audiences in the Italian translation, Medea, whose title role was immortalized by Maria Callas in the 1950s (she can be heard on the recording of a 1953 La Scala performance led by Leonard Bernstein). The Staatsoper’s new staging by Andrea Breth follows a wave of original-language productions in Brussels; Mainz, Germany; and, most recently, Stuttgart.
In her role debut, soprano Sonya Yoncheva launched herself fearlessly into the drama, becoming hysterical as she invoked the support of the gods yet maintaining credibility. Her rendition of the famous first-act aria (here, “Vous voyez de vos fils la mère infortunée”) at times evoked Callas’ phrasing and signature colors too closely, but Yoncheva – with a voice at once metallic and lush – managed to inspire sympathy while remaining fierce.
Breth’s production keeps spoken dialogue to a minimum while still conveying the story’s most important elements. The third act, however, devolves into hyperbole as Yoncheva pants and whispers through amplification. And while her stamina does not wane, her voice loses roundness at climactic moments. Nevertheless, at least in the intimate acoustic space of the recently renovated Staatsoper, she has the goods for this monstrous role.
Musically, the production is a triumph for the house (so much so that the audience couldn’t contain its applause after the overture). Daniel Barenboim drew taut, focused playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin and captured the music’s stormy emotions. The robust strings brought out the Austro-German dimension of this 1797 score, which evokes Mozart and Gluck while also accommodating opera seria and French dramaturgy.
As Jason, tenor Charles Castronovo produced a congested tone at times but delivered solid high notes and created believable tension with Medea. Staatsoper ensemble member Elsa Dreisig, with her bell-like but powerful timbre and immaculate French diction, was impressive as Dircé, lacking only the coloratura to pull off what would otherwise have been a stellar interpretation of her first aria (“Hymen! Vien dissiper une vaine frayeur”). Iain Paterson is an imperious King Creon; Marina Prudenskaya, smooth-voiced as Medea’s companion Neris; ensemble member Sarah Aristidou, a standout in the comprimario role of Dircé’s first companion.
Although Breth captures the interpersonal dimensions of the drama, the stage aesthetic is perplexing. While Medea’s appearance with her head draped and her face bronzed clearly casts her as a foreigner among the bourgeois inhabitants of Creon’s kingdom (costumes by Carla Teti), the entire action takes place in a modern warehouse (sets by Martin Zehetgruber). That she arrives to disrupt this bourgeois or capitalist world is an interesting concept, yet it comes across as downright silly when Jason dumps a giant golden ram’s head and sheepskin into a wooden carton on Medea’s arrival.
When her mad scene escalates at the onset of Act 3 – which, according to the libretto, features a palace, a temple, and mountains in the background – the stage revolves to reveal the same white-and-metal walls that glared at the audience in the first half of the evening. Only as the cartons burn in the final scene does the set heighten but stay faithful to the plot (Medea burns down Creon’s palace).
In an interesting touch, Medea staggers downstage after stabbing herself and falls to the ground in the front of the curtain as it closes. The character, it is implied, may have immortality beyond the confines of the opera. For all the flaws of this production, it makes a strong case for bringing her to life more often.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.