Arts & Events

OPERA REVIEW: Cherubini's MÉDÉE: A Rare Operatic Gem Performed in Berkeley

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday May 12, 2014 - 10:40:00 AM

As a part-time opera critic and full-time opera lover, I have attended some 750 opera performances throughout the world. Yet never until now, and in my home-town of Berkeley no less, have I had the opportunity to hear a live per-formance of Luigi Cherubini’s fabled Médée. The story of this opera is well known in Greek myth, from which source Euripides fashioned a searing tragic drama. Jason, a mainland Greek, has voyaged to the far shores of the Black Sea, to a land called Colchis where the princess Medea, (Médée in French, the original language of Cherubini’s opera), falls in love with Jason, helps him steal the Golden Fleece, and sails off with him, bearing Jason two sons during his long voyage home to Corinth. Once in Corinth, however, Jason is feted by King Creon, who offers Jason betrothal to the king’s lovely daughter Dircé, (Glauce in the Greek tale and so-named in the Italian version of Cherubini’s opera). Jason accepts Creon’s offer and urges Médée to give him custody of their children and accept lonely exile for herself.

Cherubini’s opera picks up this classical tale at the moment when Médée (or Medea) first expresses her horror at Jason’s betrayal and begins to plot her monstrous revenge against her wayward husband. Performed in Berkeley on May 4, 2014, by a group called The Handel Opera Project, Cherubini’s Médée featured soprano Eliza O’Malley in the demanding title role. The chamber orchestra was conducted by William G. Ludtke; and the fine supporting cast sang in the original French, with spoken recitatives in English.

Cherubini was an Italian composer, born in 1760, who settled in Paris in 1788, where his opera Médée was first performed on March 13, 1797, at the Théâtre Feydeau. Cherubini quickly followed up the success of Médée with a comic opera, Les Deux journées (1800), that also became enormously popular. Critics took note of Cherubini’s harmonic and orchestral richness as well as his highly original style. Beethoven admired Cherubini and considered him to be the greatest of his contemporary composers.

Where Médée is concerned, although its premiere took place only six years after Mozart’s death, Cherubini’s music looks forward rather than back, and prefigures a Romantic like Berlioz as much as (or more than) it reflects the classical influence of Mozart. There is considerable chromaticism in Cherubini’s Médée, and its writing for the title role is notoriously challenging for singers. In fact, so difficult is this role that the opera dropped out of the repertoire until Maria Callas famously re-introduced Cherubini’s Medea (sung by Callas in the Italian version) with live performances in the early 1950s and a famed studio recording in 1957. Callas’s fiery interpretation of the vengeful Medea became an early triumph of the great diva’s career; and the intensity of Callas’s stage presence inspired Italian film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini to cast Maria Callas in the non-singing role of the lead character in his 1970 film Medea.

In The Handel Opera Project’s Berkeley performance of Médée, the fire-breathing title role was splendidly sung by Eliza O’Malley, who has performed previously with various Bay Area groups such as Verismo Opera, Berkeley Opera, and Oakland Opera Theatre, as well as Capitol Opera, Sac- ramento. When I asked Ms. O’Malley what trepidations she might have had in taking on this notoriously difficult role, she replied as follows. “I knew nothing of this opera when I was first approached about singing the title role. Then when I began studying the score, I found it quite daunting, because the tessitura [or general pitch level] moves rapidly from one register to another in different vocal numbers, and it was generally lower than in the roles like Violetta in La Traviata, Gilda in Rigoletto, and Leonora in Il Trovatore I had previously sung. But the more I studied the role of Médée, the more excited I became about singing Cherubini’s amazing music.” 

To her immense credit, Eliza O’Malley gave a very fine performance, both musically and dramatically, of this enormously difficult role. In the Berkeley cast, Ms. O’Malley was joined by a fine tenor, Brian Thorsett, who sang the role of Jason; soprano Sara Hagenbuch, who sang the role of Jason’s new fiancée, Dircé; baritone Martin Bell, who brought a calm strength to Créon, Dircé’s father and king of Corinth; and contralto Kathleen Moss, who was excellent as Néris, the worried confidante of Médée’s schemes for revenge. Stage director Kimberly James made good use of the limited space available to her, and she used the acting abilities of Eliza O’Malley to bring home the inner fire of Médée as well as her fabled talents as a sorceress when she prepared the poisoned robe that would kill her rival Dircé on her wedding day. Finally, the infamous killing of her own children by Médée as a way of wreaking revenge on their errant father was gracefully carried out offstage and later suggested by ghostlike figures. 

Conductor William G. Ludtke led an orchestral ensemble comprised of two violins, a viola, a cello, a contrabass, two flutes, and a bassoon. Acoustically, however, the small venue at 2601 Durant Avenue in Berkeley was poorly suited for this large-scale, highly expressive opera, which features a spirited orchestral overture, agitated vocal confrontations between Médée and Jason, as well as angry, vengeful solo arias for Médée. Within a small space, with no stage and no orchestra pit, the singers, orchestra, chorus, and audience were all closed in upon one another. Therefore, even with a reduced orchestra, it was difficult to achieve a balance between the singers and the orchestra in such a small, acoustically hard hall. Nonetheless, it is to the credit of conductor William G. Ludtke and his Handel Opera Project that they brought off such a successful presentation of this rarely seen operatic gem. 

Until now, The Handel Opera Project has largely devoted itself to small- scale chamber operas such as Handel’s Rodelinda and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. However, it is heartening that company director William G. Ludtke has now tackled something as musically and dramatically challenging as Cherubini’s Médée. Given their success in this endeavor, let us hope that Maestro Ludtke and his excellent group might consider restaging Cherubini’s Médée in the near future in a larger theatre more welcoming to Cherubini’s adventuresome musical and theatrical expressivity. They have already brought a rare gift to the Bay Area music scene by performing this long-absent opera; and their gift deserves to be seen and heard by a larger Bay Area audience in a venue more conducive to bringing out this opera’s very considerable merits.