Online opera guide and synopsis to Cherubini’s MEDEA
No other opera is so closely associated with the name of an artist as Cherubini’s Medea. Maria Callas’ embodiment of this ancient figure was an elementary event that led to a renaissance of this opera in the middle of the last century, the force of which still captivates us today.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Solo un pianto con te versare Neris aria
Francois Benoit Hoffmann, based on Euripides Medea
The main roles
Jason, leader of the Argonauts, (tenor) - Medea, sorceress and wife of Jason (soprano) - Creon, King of Corinth (baritone) - Glauce, his daughter (soprano) - Neris, servant of Medea (contralto)
WARNER CLASSICS, Maria Callas, Fedora Barbieri, Gino Penno, Luisa Nache conducted by Leonard Bernstein and the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala di Milano.
History and Libretto
Cherubini spent the first part of his career as a composer in Italy and moved to pre-revolutionary Paris in 1787 at the age of twenty-seven. With Lodoiska, a revolutionary rescue opera, he achieved a respectable success there in 1791.
Cherubini met the music critic Francois Benoit Hoffmann, who wanted to bring the French opera closer to the art of spoken theater with antique materials. In doing so, he pushed at an open door since Cherubini was a fervent supporter of Gluck’s reform opera. Hoffmann chose Euripides’ Medea as literary basis and drew the main character with antique force, on a par with the leading roles of the spoken theater. Hoffmann focused Euripides’ story largely on the character of Medea and skilfully illuminated the soul states and machinations of the protagonist.
The role of Medea
Due to the dominance of Medea’s role, Hoffmann and Cherubini present us with the personality of the sorceress with an immense wealth of shades. We find not only the vengeful Medea, but also the tender mother, the loving woman and the flattering manipulator. This requires of the singer not only the vocal volume and stamina of a “highly dramatic soprano”, but also the ability to produce lyrical sound and a high degree of declamatory skills. Cherubini knew about the abilities of the singer Julie Scio, and he was able to draw from the full range of her abilities when composing.
Premiere and recension of the opera
The opera was well received by the Parisian audience at the Théâtre Feydeau, but it spread very slowly. In 1802 Cherubini personally supervised a Viennese performance and took the opportunity to make cuts, as criticism had been voiced in Paris for its length and musical repetitions. But “Medée” did not find its way into the 19th century repertoire. Even in Italy it was not performed for the first time until 1907, and only in German-speaking countries did it enjoy a certain popularity. It remained an opera of the “experts”, praised by Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven but spurned by the general public. It took a brilliant artist to bring the work back into the limelight of the theaters.
The Medea of Maria Callas
In 1953 Maria Callas sang the Medea for the first time in Florence. The response was so impressive that the Milan Scala decided to change its program at short notice and to show the production with the Greek-American singer to its audience. Since Vittorio Gui, the conductor of the Florentine production, was not available, Callas recommended the young American Leonard Bernstein, whom she heard conducting on the radio, to the Milan opera director. The rest is legend, Callas and Bernstein enchanted the Milan audience with a passionate Medea. During her career Callas sang the Medea in over thirty performances and there are six recordings (all of them in the Italian version), most of them live (the first one in Florence was recorded only with one microphone!) With Callas, Medea suddenly found its way into the repertoire, and with Leonie Rysanek, Magda Olivero, Shirley Verrett, Leyla Gencer, Eileen Farrell, and Gwyneth Jones there were many different singer to follow. But it remained the Callas Opera, whose three most important recordings (Bernstein/Scala, Rescigno/Dallas, Serafin/Scala) throne undisputedly in the discography sky.
The different versions of the work
Since Cherubini and Hoffmann wrote the Medéea for the genre of the “Opéra comique”, they wrote the obligatory spoken dialogues between the musical pieces. In 1855 the German composer and conductor Franz Lachner prepared a German version, for which he wrote his own recitatives. This Lachner version was translated for the Italian premiere in 1909 and also served as the basis for the Callas / Gui version of 1953. Subsequently, most performances were based on this version, albeit with various shortenings. For some time now, the original French version with dialogues has been heard again. In the opera guide, we rely mainly on the Italian version because of the importance of Callas’ interpretation.
MEDEA ACT I
Prehistory: Jason had sailed with the Argonauts to Colchis to steal the Golden Fleece. There he married the sorceress Medea, who betrayed her family out of love for Jason and helped them to get the Golden Fleece. The couple fled to Corinth and Medea gave birth to two children. They lived ten years at the court of King Creon. There Jason fell in love with the king’s daughter Glauce. He repudiated Medea. Now he plans to marry the daughter of Creon and keep the children.
Synopsis: In the Royal Palace of Creon.
We hear the main theme of the overture right at the beginning, it is a passionate, sweeping theme that reflects the spiritual drama of Medea. Sonata-like this is followed by a lyrical secondary theme, which reveals Medea’s inner struggle between revenge and (mother-) love and is broadly developped in the middle section. The finale belongs to the main theme again, thus anticipating the tragic outcome of the opera.
Sinfonia – Bellugi
Synopsis: Glauce’s girlfriends are in anticipation of the upcoming wedding with Jason. Glauce’s mood is clouded, she fears Medea’s revenge.
Che? Quando già corona Amor i vostri sospir / Quoi! Lorsque Tout S’empresse – Serafin
Synopsis: She is tormented by evil premonitions and hopes that Medea has lost her spell on Jason.
With this aria, Cherubini presents the gentle and vulnerable Glauce as the opposite of Medea. In a wonderful dialogue with a solo flute, Glauce sings of her happiness with virtuoso coloraturas.
The aria requires certainty in height and high coloratura artistry. We hear Lucia Popp, whose golden voice makes the aria an wonderful experience.
O Amore, vieni a me! fa cessar questo duol / Hymen! Viens Dissiper Une Vaine Frayeur – Popp
Synopsis: When she meets her father in the great hall, she tells him about her fear for the children of Jason, but the king promises to protect their lives. Jason appears and announces the homage of the Argonauts. They march up and present the king with a replica of the ship Argos and as a bridal gift the Golden Fleece.
O bella Glauce, il grande Giason / Belle Dircé
Jason vows to protect Glauce
Synopsis: But Glauce finds no peace, she fears Medea’s magic and craftiness. Jason tries to calm her down and swears to protect her.
We hear the lush voice of Jon Vickers, perhaps the best Jason in the discography. The recording is from the famous Dallas production with Maria Callas.
Or che più non vedrò … Vien, Imen / Eloigné Pour Jamais – Vickers
Synopsis: Her father also promises her that the gods will stand by them.
Cherubini composed a solemn aria for Creon, whose voice is surrounded by warm viola arpeggios. The choir ecstatically praises Hymen and Amor, and Jason and Dircé join in the singing.
Pronube dive, dei custodi / Dieux Et Déesses Tutélaires – Modesti
Synopsis: A soldier announces the arrival of a woman. When she enters and reveals herself as Medea, the Argonauts flee the room in fear. Medea demands the return of Jason, but Creon threatens to arrest her. Medea is not intimidated and openly threatens him with revenge on his daughter.
With the announcement of the guest the mood changes suddenly. Nervous strings draw a tension-filled mood. The tragedy takes its beginning.
Signor! Ferma una donna – Rysanek
Synopsis: Creon in turn threatens to have her killed the next day and leaves the hall with Glauce.
Qui tremar devi tu, donna rea, empia maga! / C’est À Vous De Trembler – Modesti
Synopsis: Jason and Medea stay behind alone. Medea reminds him of their love, their sacrifices and the children they have together and begs him to return to her.
Callas said of this aria, that it is a killer. The aria remains continuously in the highest tessitura and the singer has to master the most difficult articulations in the extreme registers.
It is breathtaking to hear the pleading, contempt and sentimentality in Maria Callas’ voice. She is said to have received ten minutes of applause after the aria in this recording from La Scala in Milan.
Taci Giason … Dei tuoi figli la madre tu vedi / Vous Voyez De Vos Fils
We hear a second interpretation by Rita Gorr, who had a tremendous dramatic voice.
Dei tuoi figli la madre tu vedi / Vous Voyez De Vos Fils – Gorr
The ecstatic showdown of Jason and Medea
Synopsis: But Jason rejects them. Medea curses his union with Glauce and prophesies that the marriage will never be made, whereupon Jason chases her out of the castle.
This duet shows Medea as a figure of a vocal violence never shown in the music theater before Cherubini. It shows a composer who already foresaw the dramatic duets of Verdi full of inner passion. The emotions literally boil up to white heat, driven by a furious orchestra.
Maria Callas and Gino Penno magically hold the tension of this duet, which lasts over seven minutes. Leonard Bernstein whips the strings from the conductor’s desk into a nervous, overheated mood, which congenially accompanies the ecstasy of the two singers.
Nemici senza cor, astuta mia rival / Perfides Ennemis – Callas / Penno
MEDEA ACT II
Synopsis: In the Creon’s palace. Medea appears on the stairs.
Like Wagner sixty years later in the Valkyrie, Cherubini opens the act with the nervous shimmering strings that announce the coming drama.
Introduzione – Bernstein
Kreon grants a delay of one day
Synopsis: Her servant Neris warns her that the people demand her death and advises to leave the island. But Medea wants to stay, she does not want to leave without her children. With disgust she had learned that the courtiers teach the children to hate their mother and she swears that Dircé will die before Jason’s eyes. Creon joins her and demands one last time that Medea leave the island. Medea begs him to give her refuge so she can at least see her children occasionally, but Creon remains adamant. Medea asks for one more day of respite, then she will leave the country. Creon suspects a ruse, but he grants Medea this request and leaves the place with the guards.
Date almen per pietà! / Du Moins À Médée Accordez Un Asyle – Modesti / Callas
Synopsis: Neris is full of compassion for Medea’s fate and promises to faithfully follow her wherever she goes.
Accompanied by a solo bassoon, Neris sings a lyrical aria that is the resting point of the opera.
Solo un pianto con te versare / Ah! Nos Peines Seront Communes – Berganza
Jason leaves Medea for good
Synopsis: Medea plans to use the remaining day for revenge and asks Neris to call Jason. When Jason comes to Medea, she begs him to let her have the children. But Jason refuses. When Medea recognizes his honest love for the children, she decides to follow her plan. She complains that she will never be able to see her children again and Jason allows her to see the children again and to say goodbye to them. Bitterly Medea now has to watch Jason leave her forever.
Another duet of Jason and Medea. This time we hear the pleading mother and wife.
Figli miei, miei tesor / Chers Enfants – Callas / Penno
Synopsis: Medea asks Neris to fetch the children and give Glauce jewelry and a veil as a gesture of humility. Neris does not know that the veil is soaked with poison. The music for the wedding ceremony can be heard from inside and Medea, eaten up by vengefulness, has to wait for her hour of revenge, .
Cherubini created a tremendously dramatic theatrical effect with the wedding ceremony, that can be heard simultaneously inside the church. At the end of this scene, Medea is overcome by emotions and screams her feelings of revenge from her soul.
Ah! Triste canto! In suon festoso – Callas
MEDEA ACT III
The storm rages in Medea
Handlung: Medea stands on a hill in front of the temple. A storm is raging. Neris accompanies Kreon and the children into the temple. In her hand she carries Medea’s jewelry and scarf. Medea approaches the temple. Her hair is confused and she carries a dagger in her hand. She has decided to kill her children to take revenge on Jason.
Masterfully Cherubini manages to increase the drama once again. With a three minute long orchestral prelude we experience the inner drama of Medea. The following call to the gods to assist her in her revenge has the force of the monstrous.
Introduzione … Numi, venite a me / Dieux, Qui M’avez Prêté Vos Secours – Callas
Neris brings Medea the children
Synopsis: She sees Neris coming with the children by the hand, who reports that Glauce thanked her for the gifts. As she has the children in front of her, Medea grabs the dagger. But overwhelmed by motherly feelings, she does not manage to kill them.
In 2018 Sonya Yoncheva made her debut as Medea with excellent reviews.
Del fiero duol che il cor mi frange / Du Trouble Affreux Qui Me Dévore – Yoncheva
The finale in the version of the famous Dallas recording
Synopsis: When Neris finds out about the poisoned veil, she asks Medea to spare the children, because her revenge is done. Neris quickly leads the children into the temple and closes the gate. The storm continues to rage in Medea, she resolutely grabs the dagger and hurries into the temple. Suddenly, noise from the church can be heard. One hears Jason’s lamentations about the death of the Glauce. Creon also died when touching the veil. While the people demand the death of Medea, Jason hurries outside in search of the children. Then Medea steps out of the temple with Erinys at her side. With blood on her hands she tells him that Jason’s betrayal has been avenged. She kills herself with the dagger and the temple goes up in flames.
We hear the finale of this opera in the legendary Dallas recording, which has an anecdotal background. During Callas’ engagement in Dallas she was in negotiation with Rudolf Bing, the director of the New York Metropolitan Opera. He wanted to engage her for 26 performances in three operas. She shied away from the demanding schedule and declined the offer. On November 6, 1958, Bing telegraphed Callas to cancel her contract. Bing maliciously communicated to the press that the Met was glad to be rid of both Callas and her theatrical posturing. This telegram had the potential to end her career. She worked through her anger and hatred for Bing’s rejection with a breathtaking range of emotions in that memorable evening performance on November 6, and Dallas witnessed an unleashed performance of a true artist that became one of the great recordings of opera discography.
Finale – Callas et al.
WARNER CLASSICS, Maria Callas, Fedora Barbieri, Gino Penno, Luisa Nache under the direction of Leonard Bernstein and the Orchestra and Choir of the Teatro alla Scala di Milano.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on “MEDEA” by Luigi Cherubini.