So closes Aribert Reimann’s 2010 opera Medea. It’s a two hour piece in four “pictures” that premiered at the Wiener Staatsoper in 2010 and the Blu-ray/DVD recording is taken from that initial run. Actually there’s a good deal more nightmare than dream in this version as, I suppose, there is in just about any version of the Medea story. This one draws on Franz Grillparzer’s version for the libretto and is entirely concerned with events after Jason and Medea reach Corinth. It’s unusually sympathetic to Medea herself with Jason and Kreon very much the villains.
Right from the beginning we see Medea trying, literally, to bury her past in the form of the fleece and some magic objects while Jason asserts his Greekness by changing into the modern, white clothing that stands throughout for Hellenicness. All this takes place on a desolate, volcanic landscape while above the stage left sits a sort of room or cabin, the floor of which will descend and rise to close and open the gulf between Greek and “other”.
In Bild 2 we see Medea desperately trying to assimilate (I need an antithesis for Medeize here!) aided by the sympathetic Kreusa (Kreon’s daughter). But Jason is having none of it. He’s set his cap at Kreusa and with it, ultimately, the throne of Corinth and Medea must be discarded. He’s aided and abetted by Kreon, especially after a herald from Delphi shows up demanding the expulsion of both Jason and Medea. Medea’s “otherness” must be emphasised and her attempts to assimilate rejected in order to save Jason. I don’t know whether Western attitudes to Muslim immigrants are being consciously referenced here but that’s what it had me thinking of.
Bild 3 sees Medea reacting angrily to her rejection and exile. She engineers the deaths of Kreusa and her children to the horror even of her maid/companion Gora. Jason too now serves no purpose and is exiled. In Bild 4 we get the final confrontation between the broken Jason and the resigned Medea. She will go to Delphi and restore the fleece to the temple then cast herself on the judgement of the priests. As for Jason, who knows or, indeed, cares? The opera closes with some of its most lyrical music as Medea exits up stage and the light fades.
The music is classic Reimann. It is uncompromisingly in the European modernist tradition with no concessions to current trendy notions of accessibility. It’s atonal, dissonant and often heavy on the percussion and the brass. The only relief is the final scene which has shades of Shostakovich at his more lyrical and in the sort of floaty coloratura line given to Kreusa who serves as a sort of dramatic and musical bimbo. So it’s not an easy listen but it’s very inventive and fits the subject matter well.
The performances are first class. Conductor Michael Boder really seems to understand the music and gets a taut and disciplined performance out of the Wiener Staatsoper orchestra while letting the soloists express themselves. Marlis Petersen is a stand out in the title role. Throughout she acts and sings with total commitment; equally convincing as she commits herself to the death of her children as when she struggles unsuccessfully to master a Greek song. Michaela Selinger makes a very appealing Kreusa too. She’s a fine physical actress and she gets the required contrasts out of her music with some lovely lyrical singing. Counter tenor Max Emanuel Cecic makes a spooky and threatening herald and Michael Roider, as Kreon, Adrian Eröd, as Jason, and Elisabeth Kulman, as Gora, are all more than adequate. Marco Arturo Marelli is responsible for the stage and lighting design and the direction and aided by the simple but effective costumes by Dagmar Niefind he pulls the whole thing together really well.
It’s a big, dark stage with quite a lot of action set well back so I don’t think it was easy to film. Video director Peter Schröder does a pretty decent job. He gives us a useful amount of scene setting long shots and doesn’t get tricksy. I’m not sure I would really ask for anything different though I did get the impression that this was a production better seen live. The picture on Blu-ray is spiffy 1080i and the sound is wonderfully vivid and spatially precise DTS-HD Master Audio. There are German, English, French, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The booklet contains a synopsis and a handy essay but there are no extras on the disk.
I can see why this piece more or less sold out its premiere run in Vienna. It shows that one can still make great opera from the combination of a classic story and committed music making. Dumbing down is not required for success.