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Mamma Mia!

by B.A. Nilsson on July 14, 2011

Music by Luigi Cherubini (and Franz Lachner), directed by Michael Barker-Caven, conducted by Daniele Rustioni Glimmerglass Opera, July 8

Deshorties in Medea

Murdering your children always grabs headlines, and Greek mythological Medea long ago grabbed the title of most famous filicide. Her story varies from source to source, but by the time Luigi Cherubini got hold of it, she was a sorceress who’d already murdered her own brother in aid of her beloved Jason, of fleece-hunting Argonauts fame. Cherubini was a Beethoven contemporary whose music was lauded by that composer, and his work on this opera, which premiered in 1797, shows unexpectedly forward-thinking musical techniques.

The opera has been tinkered with over the years, acquiring an Italian text (it was written in French) and musical recitatives set by Franz Lachner. As the Glimmerglass Opera production proved, the piece packs a wallop, especially when in the hands of a talent as strong as Alexandra Deshorties.

The title role gives her a grand entrance and an even bigger exit, but the heart of the piece is her struggle to justify the horrible, revenge-driven act she’s contemplating. Deshorties skillfully mined the edge of madness written into the part, reinforcing subtle messages in the music without ever going over the top.

Could we hear this score with 18th-century ears, I suspect the innovations would be striking. As it is, Cherubini informed this piece with exciting, unusual rhythmic and melodic events that kept even the more static-seeming scenes pulsing with energy. And by the third act, when Medea is at her angriest and most ambivalent, the children before her, a willing audience hoping that the inevitable outcome might change, we’re on the kind of roller coaster that makes opera thrilling.

A classical education is assumed, something that an 18th-century audience, unhampered by the nonsense of No Child Left Behind, would have possessed. We come into the piece in Medeas res, so to speak, knowing about the dead brother, the Fleece search, Medea’s reputation as a sorceress, and more.

Deshorties was supported by a fantastic orchestra under the baton of Daniele Rustioni, and the players had the virtuoso chops needed for the score’s demands—especially on flute, bassoon and horn, each of which was featured to color, respectively, the opera’s three acts.

In the role of Neris, attendant to Medea, Glimmerglass Young Artist Sarah Larsen delivered a gorgeous second-act aria, “Solo un pianto con te versare.” Bass-baritone David Pittsinger was outstanding as Creon, King of Corinth (wherein the opera is set), his terrific voice supporting his character’s imperiousness—but an imperiousness fraught with the mercy that will bring ruin in the third act.

Medea is shadowed by two cloaked figures only whose hands we see, and they were deployed effectively during her second-act confrontation with Creon, their arms reminiscent of Cocteau’s movie La belle et la bête as they reinforced the scene (“Date almen per pietà”) in which Medea persuades him to let her spend one more day with her kids.

As the warrior Jason (who left Medea to marry Creon’s daughter, Glauce), tenor Jason Collins has a robust voice that unfortunately was marred by strain on opening night. His presence is striking, although he tended to seem more petulant than angry at Medea’s intransigence.

Although director Michael Barker-Caven moved the singers well, there are many music-only moments in the score that left Deshorties sinuously agitating her arms but adding nothing to the story, moments that cried out for a choreographer.

The set and costumes, by Joe Vanek, gave a sweeping sense of space, with upstage gates of corrugated tin and imposing grey side-pieces. Jason presents the iconic Golden Fleece in act one, which occasioned the unfortunate design choice of depicting it as something that looked like an orange Darth Vader head, lit from inside, that proved amusingly distracting.

Deshorties has the spectre of a pair of acclaimed Callas recordings to contend with, but, if proof of her prowess were still needed by the third act, her aria “E che? Io son Medea” made the role her own. And it didn’t hurt that she appeared in a lovely, red Rita Hayworth dress while singing it. But I wish that Vanek hadn’t seen fit, at the end of the piece, to put her in a thigh-cut, ventilated maillot and enough blood for a week of Sweeney Todd.

Although the production featured projected supertitles, I plead again for operas in English. It’s hard to fight a tradition of snobbery, especially one so all-American as this, but opera is theater and theater needs audiences and audiences around here speak English. Capisci?