Cherubini - Médée

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday September 11 2011

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Médée: Nadja Michael. Jason: Kurt Streit. Néris: Christianne Stotijn. Créon: Vincent Le Texier. Dircé: Hendrickje Van Kerckhove. Première servante: Gaëlle Arquez. Deuxième servante: Anne-Fleur Inizian. Orchestra: Les Talens Lyriques. Chorus of La Monnaie.

I’m always glad to have a production by Kzrystof Warlikowski, so of course – and especially as we didn’t get it the first time round, in 2008 - I was glad to see his staging of Médée pop up on my Sunday matinee schedule in Brussels this year.

Noting, simply enough, that divorce and child custody are perfectly modern themes and may well, in an extreme case, end in tragedy, Warlikowski reconstructs Médée as a contemporary, postmodern patchwork in which the 18th century musical numbers are just one element among others in a nearly-new work. The themes are marriage and separation, motherhood and children, the symbols are Médée as a dangerous, unconventional outsider (Amy Winehouse: the “signature” Winehouse black hair, tattoos, little, black patent dress), as the Virgin Mary, as a weary modern mother folding her sons’ bloodstained pyjamas and putting them in a drawer at the end before, in absolute silence, walking off and slamming the metal door behind her.

As usual with Warlikowski, there were videos: 50s and 60s home videos of happy marriages, happy families, happy schoolkids… projected as the audience arrived and during the interval, in a relit auditorium with spotlights picking out the cherubs dotted around the boxes and accompanied by pop songs of the period – Oh Carol, (I am but a fool) for example. The chorus were the period bourgeoisie, in superbly reproduced 60s costumes and hairstyles. Médée and Jason were strictly contemporary: she, as I said, at first as Amy Winehouse, he with long, heavy dreadlocks bunched down the back of his dinner jacket (and some tattoos as well, once he was down to his vest). Créon and his escort were in black tracksuits, with towels and bottles of water.

The set was simple and geometric. There were whitewashed brick walls, a dark wooden floor and a sand box, highlighted with neon, running from the rear to the apron. Glass cases at the sides contained, I think (I couldn’t really see) life-size statues of the Virgin, one of which would end up naked as, in act 3, Médée wore the blond wig and blue robe. There was a partition halfway back in two-way mirror, so sometimes we could see what was going on in the background: people milling round with drinks in their hands, the two, be-suited sons scrawling anti-Dircé graffiti – “Whore” in French, for example; and sometimes we could see Rousset in the pit, bouncing up and down as usual, and ourselves in the background. The two squares of yellow floor in the background sometimes moved on rails to the front. There were echoing sound effects: thunder, a kind of drip... during the dialogues. For Warlikowski, the storytelling was pretty straightforward and, though the "fleece" was a (Damien Hirst?) skull, the fatal dress really did go up in flames – though not on the unfortunate Dircé: she was standing behind.

It’s probably a mark of how much the critics have, on the whole, liked this production that hardly any complain about the (spoken) dialogues being rewritten in contemporary French and with contemporary candour: “Casse-toi,” (“Piss off”) they included*, echoing Nicolas Sarkozy’s famous reply to a critic he met on a walkabout, though here we were spared “Pauvre con” (“miserable sod”). I doubt, too, the 1797 version would have had Médée telling us she was still filled with, among other reminiscences of their love affair, Jason’s sperm.

What they do complain about, and how right they are, is the fuzzy, echoing amplification of these spoken sections. I don’t know if it’s just me or if it’s the same for everyone: my ears had a devil of a job adjusting from amplified speech to unamplified song. Maybe the idea was to allow the singers to whisper venomously: “Thank goodness we know how to read,” remarked my elderly neighbour, as in any case reading was absolutely necessary. As a result, though in my thoughts I could imagine the “patchwork” reconstruction working very well without this awful miking, I found the first two acts disjointed and pretty tough going. But perhaps, again, that was just me: I’m usually the least conservative of the gang I go to Brussels with, but to my surprise, at the interval, even that little old lady, usually very down on Eurotrash updates, claimed time had flown.

The third act, being mostly sung, was therefore a relief. The cast was dominated by Nadja Michael. Hers is not a “beautiful” voice. “What a racket that woman Nadja Michael makes. Ghastly voice, all force and no finesse,” was what one friend e-mailed to me this morning. I’ve nothing much against racket; I prefer it to mincing around, which is what too many singers do these days. And though her voice is, undeniably, uneven (hugely percussive top, almost alto-sounding bottom, relatively weak middle) Nadja Michael is a magnificent singing actress – so it isn’t surprising to see she also sings Lady Macbeth. So, she dominated.

Kurt Streit wasn’t at his best on Sunday and though I like him a lot I’m not sure a French “haute contre” role is quite right for him. He was unusually strained at the top. Hendrickje Van Kerckhove's voice was sweet but tiny, perhaps in harmony with her timorous character. Christianne Stotijn was simply excellent: more of her, please. Vincent Le Texier was pretty blustery. The Talens Lyriques under Rousset were, as usual, lively and supple and crisp; I could just have done with a bit more drive in parts of the first two acts, but that's just me, always wanting conductors to go faster.

I didn't catch this on Mezzo, but I suspect it would work well on TV or DVD as the miking would no longer be an issue**. In the house, for me, it very nearly ruined the afternoon. Considering that, returning to Brussels to restage his production, Warlikowski changed a number of things, including sets and costumes, it's a pity he didn't change his mind about that.

*I got that wrong. It was "Fous le camp."
**That turned out to be true. La Monnaie streamed it. On video, it worked a treat.

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