Rediscovering a Rarity: Médée at the Staatsoper Berlin

Cherubini – Médée

Médée – Sonya Yoncheva
Jason – Charles Castronovo
Créon – Iain Paterson
Dircé – Elsa Dreisig
Neris – Marina Prudenskaya
Confidantes de Dircé – Sarah Aristidou, Corinna Scheurle

Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim.
Stage director – Andrea Breth

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, October 20th, 2018.

Cherubini’s Médée is still something or a rarity.  It is, of course, a work closely associated with Maria Callas, who owned the role in the middle of the twentieth century.  Callas performed the work in an Italian translation with recitatives by Franz Lachner, taking the work some way from its origins as an opéra comique.  More recently, in the twenty-first century, there have been notable new productions of the original version, with spoken dialogues, in Brussels and Stuttgart.  It’s a work definitely worthy of rediscovery, a splendid vehicle for the prima donna, who, following her entrance mid-way through Act 1, remains on stage for the rest of the evening.  It also contains some wonderful music for the tenor, requiring both liquid lyricism and heroic metal.  For this new production, of which I attended the fourth performance of the run, the Staatsoper Berlin assembled a strong international cast headed by Sonya Yoncheva in the title role and Charles Castronovo as Jason.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

The staging was the work of Andrea Breth.  At its best, it provided a fluent framework for the action.  Set in what appeared to be a warehouse, the revolving stage provided constantly changing views of the action.  It had clearly been well rehearsed – the action unfolded efficiently and everyone appeared to be in the right place at the right time.  And yet I left the theatre not especially convinced.  Part of the issue was that the constant action felt that it didn’t give the principals a chance to express the full range of their characters into the audience.  So often I complain about stagings that plant the singers at the front and have them projecting into the audience.  Here, the singers clearly interacted with each other but it didn’t always feel that what they did penetrated beyond the footlights.  Yoncheva’s Médée was definitely a livewire, able to use her considerable charms to influence Créon or turn against Jason with alarming physicality.  The use of the chorus was also somewhat problematic.  Too often they were placed in rows on stage, or at times not even placed on stage at all, singing their music while hidden.  This was something that suggested a lack of imagination in handling the forces available.  There were several non sequiturs – most notably when Jason asked ‘où sont mes fils?’ while he was actually holding them.  Surely also, there could be no justification in the twenty-first century for making Yoncheva artificially darker in complexion.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

The evening partly felt that it didn’t take wing due to Daniel Barenboim’s weighty conducting.  It started well.  A stormy overture displayed a pleasing transparency to the orchestra textures, winds nicely to the fore, that augured well for the evening ahead.  While nobody would expect anything other than a big-band, romanticized interpretation from Barenboim, where it felt lacking was in a firm rhythmic foundation to drive the action forward.  His conducting was exceptionally singer-friendly, always allowing the voices through, yet it felt that tension sagged as a result.  The Staatskapelle Berlin had a mixed evening – string intonation wasn’t always unanimous but the winds in particular were excellent.  In the chorus, the sopranos seemed taxed by the tessitura, not always agreeing on the pitch, and their diction could have been clearer.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

I was surprised that Elsa Dreisig, the sole native francophone in the cast, also suffered from foggy diction.  Dreisig is a highly promising young singer but tonight I wondered if she was suffering from an unannounced indisposition.  Her opening number saw her silvery, attractive soprano with pearly tone not quite sitting on the note, the voice sounding as if it was being pushed beyond what it could comfortably do.  Where Dreisig gave pleasure was in her delivery of the dialogue, finding a poetry in her speaking of the text that I wish had been manifested more in her singing.  Iain Paterson was a somewhat grainy-voiced Créon, nicely firm on top but lacking the ideal weight at the bottom to allow his music to have its full impact.  Marina Prudenskaya gave us a wonderfully limpid account of her aria – the ruby red tone dispatched with an admirable legato although, again, the words could have been clearer.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Where the evening really took off was in the performances of the central pair of Médée and Jason.  Castronovo brought his gloriously masculine tenor to the role of Jason.  He very much had the measure of the role, giving us both the lyricism as well as the metal on top that it requires – and always dispatched in excellent French.  The pain that he made so apparent, as he realized what he had lost in the final scene, was devastatingly immediate.  Another notable assumption from this remarkable singer.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Sonya Yoncheva gave us a commanding Médée.  The voice is large and carries well.  The middle is warm, rounded and rich, but the vibrations have loosened on top where the voice has also lost colour, becoming grainy.  She also wasn’t afraid to get chesty in places.  Yoncheva truly lived the role.  She sang and spoke it in excellent French, the clarity of her diction allowing her performance to live even more vitally.  It wasn’t always beautiful or technically impeccable – intonation also came in and out of focus – but what Yoncheva gave us was a fearless and dedicated piece of singing-acting.  She tore up the stage in the final act – yes, the registers are starting to part company, and tuning was more approximate than accurate, but Yoncheva was massively compelling.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Tonight was a mixed evening on the whole.  We were given a staging that certainly got things moving but that also felt less than coherent.  We had conducting that felt lacking in a sense of forward pulse and orchestra playing that had some excellent playing in the winds as well as some raw tuning in the strings.  That said, we were witness to two towering performances in the central roles, from two extremely dedicated singing-actors, who allowed the drama to live.  It was warmly received by the Berlin audience, Barenboim and his orchestra receiving a standing ovation from some members of the public as they took their curtain call on stage.  In Yoncheva’s case her Médée might not have been conventionally beautiful but she was always authoritative and persuasive.

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One comment

  1. I get a little worried about Yoncheva to be honest. As an overall performance, this was one of the most detailed, specific, and committed I’ve seen from, as opposed to the sort of “half finished” feeling I’d gotten from her prior. But her voice, though still lovely, is definitely getting an unruly harsh edge. So I hope she sorts it out.

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