This afternoon, the Festival featured the premiere of a complete new storyline loosely based on the myth of Medea, performed to the music of Luigi Cherubini.
My formulation there is intentional. Despite what the program said, this was also not a staging of Cherubini’s opera Medea.
Whatever it was, I will start with the music. Elena Stikhina, as Medea, was stellar, working her way through the full range of emotions, with a big, warm, round voice to fill the hall no matter what the emotion. She is only 32 years old but had a stage and vocal presence that seemed experienced well beyond her years. I’ve heard her once before as Micaela in Carmen at the Salzburg Landestheater in 2015 where she overshadowed the rest of a good cast. This time, the cast was better – with Rosa Feola as Dirce, Pavel Černoch as Jason, and Vitalij Kowaljov as Creon – all highly expressive, but she still outshone them all. The role is a real tour-de-force, and she achieved it with flying colors (and made it almost sound easy, which it is certainly not).
The cast was ably supported by the Vienna State Opera Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic in top form, under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock, whom I had never before heard of but apparently specializes in non-standard operatic repertory. His reading tonight was well-paced, and he highlighted Cherubini’s dramatic music perfectly.
Cherubini remains surprisingly underrated, although he was well-regarded in his day, especially by Beethoven (a much more original composer, but who did take influence from Cherubini, whom he openly credited and admired). Cherubini composed this opera originally in French for Paris, where it flopped (probably more drama and power than the effete French can take). But the Italian Cherubini, known for his drama and liturgical music, had more influence in the German-speaking world, so he augmented this opera (and had it put into German) and it formed part of the standard repertory in German-speaking theaters throughout the 19th Century, before falling out of favor. Translated into Italian, it got a new lease on life in the 20th Century. Recently, there have been attempts to revert to the original French-language setting.
While this was one such case to revert to French, it was not exactly an attempt to be faithful to the original. The staging was not Regietheater (thankfully), but the director – Australian Simon Stone – altered the plot (more than just updating it to take place in 2019 Austria). Most of the action in this opera occurs either during the dialogue or offstage during the musical interludes. By getting rid of the dialogue entirely and leaving only the arias, duets, and choral ensembles, Stone could substitute his own retelling of plot (so he had multiple scene changes jumping from one to the next, showed film clips with new plot during the musical interludes, and replaced some of the dialogue with long voicemail messages from Medea to Jason).
For the most part, this silliness could be ignored. I am not sure it helped elucidate the opera, but it also did not really hurt either and at least Stone was using his brain. However, the final scene (in which Medea supposedly douses a car she has stolen in gasoline and ignites it with the kids and herself inside while the police watch for ten minutes without doing anything) just looked too silly and had the audience chortling. The rousing applause at the end turned to boos when Stone and his enablers came on stage for a bow (I did not boo – I was just relieved it wasn’t offensive German Regietheater garbage – but I did sit on my hands when he and his team showed up, as the concept really did not work even if it did not offend).