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In Review > International


Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Paterson, Dreisig, Castronovo, Yoncheva, Prudenskaya in Médée in Berlin
© Bernd Uhlig

A DREARY PRODUCTION of Cherubini’s Médée (seen Oct. 28) kicked off the Berlin Staatsoper’s first full season under Matthias Schultz, its new young Intendant. The new Médée suggested that the company, recently returned to its expensively restored historic home on Unter den Linden, is increasingly adrift. Too much energy has been expended on making the Lindenoper glamorous and exclusive—two adjectives that are very un-Berlin—and not enough effort has been given to what happens onstage.

Cherubini’s 1797 opéra comiquehas been admired in Germany since its first Berlin production, in 1800. Beethoven and Goethe were impressed by it, as was Johannes Brahms, who wrote, “This Médée is the work we musicians recognize among ourselves as the highest peak of dramatic music.” Médée was staged in Berlin throughout the nineteenth century in German translation, eventually with ponderous Wagner-style recitatives that replaced the spoken text. By the end of the century, however, it had been edged out of the repertoire by the operas of Verdi and Wagner.  

The opera had a surge in popularity in the 1950s, when Maria Callas made Medea one of her signature roles. When Callas first sang Medea, in Florence in 1953, the opera had not been staged in Italy since 1909, when La Scala mounted the Italian premiere of the opera for the flamboyant Dalmatian-born diva Ester Mazzoleni, one of the leading dramatic sopranos of her era. The Mazzoleni Medea, an Italian translation of Franz Lachner’s 1855 German-language adaptation of Médée, was the basis for the stagings of the opera that Callas sang to feverish acclaim in Milan, Dallas, London and Epidaurus. In recent years, the original version of Médée has enjoyed something of a revival, made possible by a critical edition published in 2006. Over the past decade, this version has served as the basis for well-received productions in Brussels, Stuttgart and Mainz. 

Andrea Breth, the German director of the Staatsoper’s new production, is director of Vienna’s Burgtheater. Her previous collaborations with conductor Daniel Barenboim include Eugene Onegin at the 2007 Salzburg Festival and a 2012 adaptation of Lulu at Berlin Staatsoper. Breth chose to rewrite and abridge the spoken text along with Sergio Morabito, as if to preclude any claims to absolute fidelity that the company might want to trumpet. Her staging, set in what appeared to be an underground storage depot or parking lot, was dull and stuffy. Unfortunately, these same adjectives also applied to Daniel Barenboim’s conducting. 

The critical edition strips away the traces of nineteenth-century Romanticism that have clung to Médée ever since Maria Callas sang it and restores Cherubini’s well-proportioned classicism, with its intricate instrumentation and elegant voice-leading, often highlighted by intricate woodwind obbligatos. The Staatskapelle played with finesse, but Barenboim insisted on plodding tempos, dark colors and heavy textures that bogged the performance down. Climactic moments, including the final coda, were emphatically stiff, with a rigid marching-band quality. 

The starry cast, headed by Sonya Yoncheva, worked hard to inject drama and passion into this stifling evening. The Bulgarian soprano made an impressive debut in the punishing title role, singing with vocal confidence and expressive power, although her French was mostly undecipherable and she could have taken more care to reign in her magnificently full voice (a feat she managed in the recent Salzburg Poppea). The soaring vocalism of Yoncheva’s generously scaled performance was ill served by Barenboim’s approach. Like so much in the production, maestro and diva never truly seemed to gel. On a non-vocal note, Breth’s decision to have Médée wear blackface was distracting and disturbing—though not in the way that this tale of betrayal and matricide should be. (The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Colchis, Medea’s homeland on the coast of the Black Sea, was inhabited by Ethiopians and Egyptians.)

Charles Castronovo’s throaty tenor was well suited to Jason’s callousness and swagger, though, like Yoncheva, his conception of the work seemed far removed from Barenboim’s own. The production’s third guest star, Scots bass-baritone Iain Paterson, seemed miscast as Créon and struggled with his French diction. Unsurprisingly, the house singers in the production were the ones most in sync with the maestro: as Dircé, Médée’s unwitting rival, the pearly-voiced Elsa Dreisig sang with delicacy and refinement, while house mezzo Marina Prudenskaya brought a fitting degree of understatement and lament to Néris, Médée’s slave. —A. J. Goldmann

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