English National Opera deserves a big round of applause for dipping its feet into the comparatively uncharted waters of French Baroque opera. It tested the temperature last year with its staging of Rameau’s Castor and Pollux with rather mixed results, and now feels secure enough to give the big stage treatment to Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s 1693 tragédie mise en musique, Medea.
For English ears used to the florid aria-recitative-aria format of Handelian opera, the French variety can seem unfamiliar and disconcerting. Here, the drama and the sentiments expressed are carried along by vocal inflection, subtle changes in tempi and harmony, and carefully placed instrumental interventions rather than by coloratura pyrotechnics. This allows for faster paced action and more flexibility in the way characters develop. Along the way, substantial dance sections are an integral part of the form – a feature which French audiences expected in productions of major works well into the nineteenth century. The dance elements were generously provided for by Lynne Page’s choreography. A bit camp and ill-fitting to start with (leg-kicking naval officers and the like), this calmed down to offer an interesting take on the drama, as well as providing several entertaining divertissements.
Given that the rhythms and cadences of the French language are integral to the musicality of French Baroque opera, ENO’s production needed a careful translation of Thomas Corneille’s libretto. This they largely got from Christopher Cowell. Overall, it maintained the dignified elegance of the original, despite the odd awkward turn of phrase. Bunny Christie’s designs and David McVicar’s direction offered a credible take on Euripides’ tale of love, betrayal and revenge against a background of war. The grand apartment of a Versailles-inspired chateau was the setting for the intrigues of the allied forces of an impending 1940s conflict.
Caught in the middle was a resplendent Sarah Connolly as the sorceress Medea, shunted aside by her lover Jason to make way for a politically advantageous marriage. Vocally dominant throughout, she seamlessly worked her way through Charpentier’s demanding writing, and built up a convincing portrayal of Medea, from solicitous mother, to jealous lover, to her final incarnation as infanticidal Fury. Jeffrey Francis as the faithless Jason fared less well. Portly and stiffly mannered, he did not really look the part, and never really sounded as though he meant it. Roderick Williams was more impressive, his dramatic flair and vocal certainty marking him out in the lesser role of Orontes. Katherine Manley, too, proved notable as Medea’s love rival, Creusa.
Christian Curnyn ably conducted the ENO orchestra, bringing out some beautiful playing from his light-fingered theorbo and woodwind players in particular. Some of the detail, though, was missed in the huge expanse of the Coliseum. Curnyn might have done better to double up some of parts, sacrificing authenticity in the interests of greater audibility. Overall, though, a great improvement on Castor and Pollux, and hopefully ENO will set to work soon on staging something by the father of French Baroque opera: Jean-Baptiste Lully.