Making Surprise Debut As Murderous Medea, Naturally She Killed It

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Soprano Chiara Isotton made her impressive Canadian Opera Company debut as Medea a few days earlier than planned when Sondra Radvanovsky was indisposed. (Michael Cooper (Photos courtesy Canadian Opera Company)

TORONTO — Continuously if not prominently in the repertoire since its premiere in 1797, Medea is understood to be an opera that demands a diva in the title role. There could be no doubt after the May 5 performance of Luigi Cherubini’s shocker in the Four Seasons Centre that the Canadian Opera Company had found such a specimen in Chiara Isotton.

To which the cognoscenti might respond: “Who?” The Italian soprano was booked for the last two of six performances, but the run was clearly sold on the strength of Sondra Radvanovsky, who also happened to be the Medea of the Metropolitan Opera premiere of this new David McVicar production in 2022. While there were gasps of surprise when COC general director Perryn Leech announced that the house favorite (who had sung on opening night on May 3) was indisposed, the disappointment evaporated minutes after Isotton took to the stage.

Chiara Isotton (www.chiaraisotton.com/)

Where to begin? It hardly matters, for this is an artist who has it all. The voice — big, bright, and radiant — scales heights of fury and pathos with no loss of tonal integrity. Technique is secure, rhythm steady, expression apt.

Her acting was scarcely less impressive. Bear in mind that this Greek antiheroine, jilted by Jason after helping him secure the Golden Fleece, must arouse our pity while openly contemplating the most foul murders imaginable.

Well, mission accomplished. We could understand — while deploring — Medea’s decision to exact revenge on Jason (“Giasone” in the commonly used Italian version with added recitatives) through their children, whom she was being forced to abandon. (No joint custody in ancient Corinth.)

American tenor Matthew Polenzani also managed to interest us in his dilemma with heroic sound and human phrasing. Notable among the supporting singers was Zoie Reams, a warm-toned American soprano whom I took to be a mezzo before consulting the program. She was deeply sympathetic as Medea’s servant Neris, particularly in her lyrical Act 2 aria, complete with a songful bassoon obbligato.

Jason (Matthew Polenzani), enrages his former lover Medea (Chiara Isotton).

Bass-baritone Alfred Walker was appropriately stentorian as the king, Creonte, and soprano Janai Brugger (yet another American) was dramatically convincing as Jason’s new bride, Glauce. Lesser roles were taken well and the COC Chorus (as prepared by Sandra Horst) was incisive. Indeed, musical values were high overall under the Italian conductor Lorenzo Passerini, who effectively underlined Cherubini’s proto-romantic impulses and painted a wonderfully evocative canvas of a gathering storm at the beginning of Act 3 (with, of course, the cooperation of the well-drilled COC Orchestra).

The set (designed by McVicar), fronted by a pair of gilded mobile slabs — which opened periodically to reveal the wedding celebrations from which Medea was excluded — was plausibly timeless. Costumes (Doey Lüthi) were of the 19-century variety that can be pressed into service these days for almost any setting or period. The Argonauts, brandishing sabres, looked like the Pirates of Penzance.

The elaborate setting, designed by director McVicar, used mirrors to provide a bird’s-eye view of the wedding ceremony.

No matter. McVicar stands out among contemporary opera directors for his refusal to load the stage with conceptual irrelevancies. The only notable device was a huge tilted mirror that created a false three-dimensional backdrop while giving the audience a bird’s-eye view of the action. The idea was to stress the claustrophobic nature of Creonte’s court. Fair enough. A vivid ring of fire at the end represented the burning of the temple, Medea’s final act of revenge. It would do nicely for a new production of Die Walküre.

Isotton, in her unexpected COC debut, riveting at the center of it all.

There was one intermission before Act 3, which created a first “half” of more than 95 minutes. Not all the music in the early going is of high distinction. There is no question, however, that Medea holds the stage with direction that respects its elemental dramatic force and a cast of the caliber assembled on this occasion.

Above all, it works with a great performer as the fascinating figure at the center of it all. This unexpected role debut could hardly have been more impressive. Chiara Isotton sang a performance of Fedora at the Met in January 2023 but has otherwise made her career mostly in Europe. You can safely add Toronto to the list of cities whose opera fans look forward to her return.

Radvanovsky at press time was scheduled to sing on May 9 and 11. Isotton is booked for the last two performances, May 15 and 17. For tickets and information, go here.