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Summer Opera: Cherubini's Medea

One of the great things that Jean-Pierre Brossmann did, when he succeeded Stéphane Lissner as director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, was to create the Festival des Régions. Each summer, successful opera productions from provincial theaters would be brought to Paris for a special run. Since he himself had come to Paris from the Opéra de Lyon, some Parisians were suspicious about his motives, but after six good years, the idea has caught on. The latest of these productions, which I wrote about in my Opera in the Summer 2005 post, is Luigi Cherubini's Medea (1797), in the new production from the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse. (In 2000, Nicolas Joel's company brought excellent productions of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet and Gustave Charpentier's Louise; for more on Nicolas Joel, see my post from Sunday.) Here's a partial translation of the review by Marie-Aude Roux (La Médée du Capitole de Toulouse déçoit un peu en arrivant à Paris, July 3) in Le Monde, who claims to be a little disappointed:

It was in Toulouse that the Italian Anna Caterina Antonacci, the incandescent Cassandre in the famous Berlioz Les Troyens at the Châtelet in 2003, had debuted in 1998, in The Barber of Seville. On Thursday, June 30, she performed the destructive role that propelled Maria Callas to fame (in 1953, in Florence and then at La Scala, under Leonard Bernstein), 16 years before Pasolini's Medea recorded the singer's tragic face so impressively on film. [...]

Produced at the Capitole in May, the production arrives in Paris to considerable anticipation: Anna Caterina Antonacci would supposedly make us forget Callas. But the singer seems out of her element here, and her beautiful caryatid's silhouette does not make up for singing that, while certainly noble and strong with a warm and heavenly timber, is tentative in the high register, thin of line and poorly projected, unable to fill up the hall except in the final act of vengeance. The disappointment is not lessened by Evolino Pido's animated but unimaginative conducting or Yannis Kokkos's tomblike staging, which relies on broad stereotypes instead of better direction of the actors. We are not rejuvenated by these caged animal turns to express wounded pain, these heads raised to the implored heavens, these stretched-out arms, these slow steps, these cowardly crimes committed in corridors.
Mme. Roux was also not impressed by the Italian version of the opera performed in Toulouse, with the sung recitatives made by Franz Lachner in 1855, to replace the original French alexandrin verse in the 1797 premiere. She does single out contralto Sara Mingardo for her "troubling and touching" performance as Neris. Another review, also generally negative, comes from Christian Merlin (Sans frisson, July 2) for Le Figaro (my translation):
If Cherubini's Medea is not often performed, it is because it is one of those works that stands up only by the presence of an exceptional performer, and those who can claim such a title and take advantage of all of a tragic actress's tricks are quite rare. With Maria Callas overshadowing the role like the Commendatore's statue, the infanticide sorceress was for a long time the property of temperamental singers, whose excesses for better or worse made us forget their lack of style. This is not at all the case with Anna Caterina Antonacci: while always remaining herself, this great artist constructs each role by understanding the color, rhetoric, and phrasing appropriate to each period. She alone, surely, today would be able to revive this neoclassical music, in which Gluck hands the baton to Beethoven, without descending into melodrama. The only problem is that, to sing this overstuffed score with enthusiasm, without giving oneself over to vulgar effects, you must be at your physical and emotional best. Antonacci, although she had blown away audiences and critics last month in Toulouse, did not have her best night during the Parisian premiere. Her voice dried up, and the high range was reached only by shredding force, so the Cassandre miracle of Les Troyens was not reproduced, at least not on Thursday night.
Merlin reminds us that Yannis Kokkos was responsible for the staging of that legendary Les Troyens, but he does not care for this staging either ("more like a statuary than a theater"). Just like Roux, Merlin singles out Sara Mingardo, "whose vibrant contralto voice brought some humanity, for the length of one aria, to a thrill-less evening." The remaining performances of Medea are scheduled in Paris for tonight and July 8.

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