Cherubini – Medea

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, July 8 2005

Conductor: Evelino Pido. Production, sets, costumes: Yannis Kokkos. Medea: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Gioasone: Giuseppe Gipali. Gluace: Annamaria dell’Oste. Creonte: Giorgio Giuseppini. Neris: Sara Mingardo. Two servants: Elena Poesina, Blandine Staskiewicz. Captain of the guard: Frédéric Caton. Orchestra and Chorus of the Capitole de Toulouse.

The applause at the end of this Medea was louder and longer than usual in Paris, where the house lights tend to go up quickly in a stark message to patrons to buzz off. The loudest clapping and cheering and stamping of all was for Anna-Caterina Antonacci, and anyone who’s seen her as Cassandra in the Châtelet DVD of Les Troyens will have no trouble imagining her as Medea.

Her voice is not beautiful, but the rough edge, the permanent hint of strain and of definite risk at the top, combined with the fact that she’s willing to throw herself into the part and take that risk, add to her considerable skills as a tragic actress and undeniable stage presence to ensure a convincing performance. The other star of the evening turned out to be Sara Mingardo as Neris, putting a rather old-fashioned tremolo in her voice (reminiscent, though lighter, of England’s Ferrier “school” of mezzos) and her own sense of tragedy to moving use. So, as act 3 is largely hers and Medea’s, it was a particular success.

The rest of the cast was more worthy than stunning. I said in my review of La Rondine the night before in the same house that the contrast would be interesting, and so it was. It was interesting to find that Annamaria dell’Oste, Lisette in La Rondine, no longer needing to outsing Puccini’s orchestration, was more stable in the medium, but without that plush orchestral cushion sounded metallic at the top. Giuseppe Gipali had a very fine tenor voice, some power and all the notes, but the production gave him no presence or sense of involvement. Giorgio Giuseppini acted better. His is a fairly clear, Italian baritone sound but with a hint of cover at the very top.

Comparison with the previous evening was also interesting in the pit. The Toulouse orchestra was sumptuously glamorous in Puccini, but in Cherubini the strings were somehow lacklustre – I wonder how far this is due to Evelino Pido, whose conducting has never seemed to me as good as the critics say. However, typically for French orchestras, if the strings were ropey, the woodwinds gave us some beautiful obbligati.

The production was severe without being cold (thanks in part to warm, sunny lighting), and very stylish. The colour scheme was a palette of black to dark plum and chocolate, whites and creams and gold. Half a dozen steps ran the full width of the stage throughout, sometimes white, sometimes black. For act 1, at the top of these steps was a black wall with two gold-framed doorways topped with garlanded, gold oeil de boeuf openings. The wall parted, when Giasone arrived to offer the fleece to his bride, for a magnificent painted and gilded ship’s bows and figurehead to descend from the flies, and a golden sail to rise from the floor.

Act 2 started more simply, with a single central doorway and, beneath it, in front of the steps, a black slab to which Medea was confined. In this case, the walls parted for the wedding scene, and now the characters, previously dressed in black or very dark shades (in the severe, elegant tailoring of the Directoire, all with black wigs tightly pulled back into pigtails, somewhat à la Raimondi in Losey’s Don Giovanni) were in creamy whites.

For Act 3, slanting black panels created an inverted triangular opening through which we saw the steps continuing to rise to the roof and a flame burning in a golden bowl. The blocking and lighting were excellent, but otherwise Kokkos seems to have left the singers to themselves – hence Giasone’s expressionlessness, for example. So presumably if Antonacci and Mingardo were so good, it was thanks to acting skills they brought along in their bags.

This would no doubt make a good-looking DVD, and the recording would be a decent addition to the Medea calatogue. But apparently it isn’t to be…

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