There must be at least a dozen operas telling the story of Medea, the jealous princess who poisons her rival and punishes her unfaithful husband by killing her own children.
Three of them can be watched in the coming weeks at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris.
The cycle has just started with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Medee.” Its 1693 premiere at the Academie Royale de Musique was remarkable in two respects.
It was the only full-scale opera that Charpentier, though an acclaimed composer of incidental music for Moliere’s plays, was allowed to write. He had to wait for the death of Jean-Baptiste Lully who defended his royal monopoly on “tragedies en musique” tooth and nail.
To set the ancient myth of Medea to music at that particular time was bound to awaken unpleasant memories: A few years earlier, the court of Louis XIV had been rattled by the discovery that a number of noblewomen were resorting to poison and witchcraft.
Although the king shielded his mistress, Madame de Montespan, from prosecution, the suspicion that she had poisoned a rival, Mademoiselle de Fontanges, still lingered in many minds.
Was that the reason why Charpentier’s opera had such a short life? Or was it the intrigues of envious Lullystes? We don’t know.
At any rate, “Medee” disappeared after a few performances and re-emerged only in 1984 when Robert Wilson staged it in Lyon.
Today, it’s recognized as arguably the finest French opera of the 17th century. William Christie, Charpentier’s most ardent champion, has recorded it not once but twice.
“Medee” tells a gruesome story. Yet it does so in the formal manner established by Lully -- with a prologue in praise of the king, with grandiose choruses and lengthy dance interludes.
Pierre Audi, the director, and Jonathan Meese, the set designer, have chosen to ignore the courtly conventions. The singers appear in modern dress, and the stage is dominated by Meese’s crude, Neo-Expressionist backdrops.
Some of his images are quite effective; others reminded me of the graffiti on the Berlin Wall or, as one art critic said of Meese’s installations, “overloaded adolescent bedrooms.”
What suffers most from the unorthodox approach is the dances. They look like strange physical exercises.
At the curtain calls on opening night, Emmanuelle Haim was greeted with some boos. Although one could object to her conducting technique, which she seems to have learned from Cassius Clay, I found the sound of Le Concert d’Astree, her period-instrument ensemble, wonderfully muscular and dramatic. The chorus, too, is first-rate.
The young Canadian mezzo Michele Losier, who sings the title role, seems overtaxed by Medea’s outbursts of hatred. The countertenor Anders Dahlin is a dry Jason, the feckless father of her children.
Sophie Karthauser remains bland as Creuse, Jason’s new love interest. Laurent Naouri as her father Creon, Oedipus’s brother-in-law, is powerful though a bit rough.
They’re all overshadowed by Stephane Degout in the relatively minor role of Oronte, another of Creuse’s admirers. With his firm, juicy baritone, he easily steals the show.
“Medee” is in repertory through Oct. 23.
On Nov. 9 and 10, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees presents Pascal Dusapin’s 1992 opera “Medea”, adapted by the director and choreographer Sasha Waltz, an import from Berlin.
From Dec. 10 to 16, Luigi Cherubinis “Medea”, one of Maria Callas’s warhorses, follows, directed by the Polish iconoclast Krzysztof Warlikowski and conducted by Christophe Rousset. Nadja Michael sings the title role.
Information: http://www.theatrechampselysees.fr or +33-1-4952-5050.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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