Domestic Tragedy: Medea in Corinto at the Festival Donizetti Opera

Mayr – Medea in Corinto

Creonte – Roberto Lorenzi
Egeo – Michele Angelini
Medea – Carmela Remigio
Giasone – Juan Francisco Gatell
Creusa – Marta Torbidoni
Ismene – Caterina Di Tonno
Tideo – Marcello Nardis

Coro Donizetti Opera, Orchestra Donizetti Opera / Jonathan Brandani.
Stage director – Francesco Micheli.

Festival Donizetti Opera, Teatro Sociale, Bergamo, Italy.  Saturday, November 27th, 2021.

What a pleasure it is to be back in beautiful Bergamo after last year’s enforced break due to the plague.  And what a pleasure it is also to see the Festival Donizetti Opera back on stage and flourishing, with tonight’s Medea in Corinto taking place in the intimate Teatro Sociale, where Mayr’s opera was first given in its revised version back in 1821.  As always with this festival, what was notable was the intelligence of its vocal casting – each role had clearly been cast with care and introduced us to some new, as well as established, talents.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

The staging was confided to festival director, Francesco Micheli.  He has given us a highly visual and logical view of the work, one that presents the narrative in a clear, rational way.  Micheli updates the action to the past half-century.  While the bulk of the story takes place in 1975, there are references to 2021 (complete with the now familiar face masks), with Creusa and Giasone seen in their modern-day kitchen.  What distinguishes Micheli’s approach is that he rarely leaves singers alone on stage to emote to the front.  Instead, he uses the entire cast to drive the narrative forward, as if bringing us into the inner workings of the individual minds of the central quartet.  For instance, we see Creusa hovering around Medea and Giasone’s marital bed.  Or Egeo finding Giasone and Medea in an embrace, leading to the events that follow.  The constant presence of Medea’s children on stage is a reminder of her ultimate revenge – although the closing denouement appears to leave the question open of whether Medea does in fact indulge in child killing.  The constant presence of marital beds and a kitchen descending and ascending from and to the flies, reinforces Micheli’s view that this is at heart a domestic tragedy, albeit one on an epic scale.

The direction of the principals was vivid, each one creating performances that were tireless in their commitment.  The enthusiastically lusty gentlemen’s chorus was placed in the boxes at the side of the stage – presumably due to the sanitary implications of the current situation.  Consequently, Micheli was able to focus the drama down to its concentrated instincts, to create a piece of theatre that was intense and alive – fluently rehearsed.  If occasionally, there were elements that distracted – a few men masked in a way that suggested they’d gotten lost on their way to rubber night at the local gentlemen’s establishment throwing knives – as a whole, Micheli’s staging more than convinced.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Musically, it was very satisfying with one major disappointment.  And that was Jonathan Brandani’s conducting.  Brandani led a highly manicured reading full of classical poise, that was also devoid of drama.  Tempi rarely seemed to exceed a stately andante, sapping the energy from the vocal performances.  At one point, as Michele Angelini’s Egeo sang his big Act 2 number with uninhibited passion, the response from the pit appeared to be controlled indifference, despite Angelini injecting so much energy into his manifestation of his character’s predicament.  I longed for Brandani to vary his tempi, to discover the emotional impact of a sforzando and to bring out the multitude of colours in the orchestration.  Instead, what we got was primarily beige and made the evening feel much longer than it actually was.  The house orchestra played competently, although the string tuning was occasionally raw.  The score has some enchanting obbligato arias for the sopranos with violin and harp respectively, and the orchestral principals dispatched these with sensitivity.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Carmela Remigio, who gave us a memorable Lucrezia Borgia at this festival two years ago, gave a committed account of the title role.  At first, I found her rather cold and lacking in engagement with the text.  Her chalky soprano isn’t the most refulgent, nor does it have a wide tonal palette, and her initial lack of drawing out meaning from the text made her reading rather cold.  It became clear that Remigio was pacing herself and she grew to her big Act 2 scenes with fearless engagement, spitting out the text and dominating the stage with determination.  Marta Torbidoni is a new name to me, and she is a most interesting one.  The owner of a lemon-toned soprano, slightly acidic in tone, but with a fine technique, she dispatched her long florid lines with elegance and musicality – as well as a genuine trill.  Her native diction allowed her to truly savour the text and bring out meaning.  Hers is a very distinctive instrument, but one capable of finding truth and depth in her portrayal, combined with a satisfying instinctive musicality.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

In the two principal tenor roles, Juan Francisco Gatell sang Giasone in his chestnut-toned tenor, unflinching in its highest reaches.  He dispatched his music with energetic commitment, an easy line and a stage presence that was magnetic.  Angelini similarly sang Egeo with his customary musicality and deep identification with the idiom.  He brought out the beauty of his lines, yet never to the detriment of finding the drama within and his frequent excursions to the stratosphere were executed with the utmost ease – seriously impressive.  As Creone, Roberto Lorenzi was a towering presence on stage and sang his music in an inky bass-baritone with attractive liquid tone.  The remaining roles reflected the admirable quality of the festival. 

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

Tonight was an evening the presented this rarity with commendable dedication, in a staging that was highly logical and presented the narrative in a cogent and clear way.  I have serious reservations about the conducting, which blunted the work of its full impact.  The singing, however, was deeply satisfying, with Remigio growing in stature as the evening developed.  The audience rewarded the singers and conductor with generous ovations, but some boos were reserved for Micheli – unnecessarily so in my opinion. 

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