Cherubini’s 1797 opéra comique Médée was one of the first to use the form for serious drama. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2011 production filmed at La Monnaie in Brussels is certainly that. Jason, Medea and the rest are very contemporary characters though we often see them against a backdrop of 1960s style home movies and the chorus too, which tends to remain in the background also seems to be from the same period.The meaning of this juxtaposirtion isn’t clear and there is nothing on the disks or in the documentation to help. We are also told that the libretto was adapted by Warlikowski and dramaturge Christian Longchamp but nothing more than that. This is definitely a production where the director’s notes would be a major plus.
The overall effect is quite creepy. When we first meet Jason’s new squeeze Dirce she is grovelling in a sand pit in her underwear. The sand pit gets a lot of use. Creon spends plenty of time there and Medea uses it to work her spells on voodoo dolls of Dirce and Jason. Dirce, Medea and the two sons seem to spend a lot of time in their underwear in this production. It could almost be a Martin Kušej production. It’s really a pretty straightforward telling of the story though centring, as it should, on Medea as her anger turns to hatred and she plots and executes her revenge on Jason and Creon.
So, much turns on the singer playing the title role and here it is Nadja Michael. She looks the part absolutely. She is every inch the alien, tattooed sorceress of Creon’s nightmares. She really inhabits the role and her booze fuelled transformation in Act 2 from slightly broken refugee to revenge crazed woman of power is exciting to watch. She’s also highly effective vocally. Michael is a true dramatic soprano who normally sings roles like Salome and Lady Macbeth so she’s certainly got the chops. It makes for a very good contrast with the much much frailer looking and lighter sounding Dirce of Hendrickje Van Kerckhove. She’s fascinating to watch too and does a good job with the tricky coloratura in Act 1. The guys are good too with Vincent Le Texier an effectively bullying Creon and Kurt Streit as a straightforwardly heroic, rather bluff, Jason.
Musically this is quite unusual. The opéra comique format, with spoken dialogue, seems to focus attention on the orchestra when it does come in. Here it really sounds dramatic even though it’s Les Talens Lyriques on period instruments. Conductor Christophe Rousset really generates a lot of energy. Against all this the chorus of La Monnaie seems to be rather pushed into the background though they sound well enough. All in all though it’s pretty satisfying.
Stephan Metge directed the video recording. It’s a tough production to film and I’m pretty sure there’s a lot one doesn’t see on the DVD. Metge, I think, tries to give us the big picture but thre is an understandable tendency to focus on Dirce and Medea in their big scenes. It does crank up the intensity though perhaps at a price in overall comprehension. The picture on DVD is pretty good and the Dolby 5.1 sound is pretty decent too. (There is an LPCM stereo option) This is also available on Blu-ray which would no doubt push things up a notch in both departments. The documentation includes a synopsis and track listing but, as noted earlier, no explanatory material either on disk or in the booklet. Subtitle options are English, French, Dutch and German.