The Metropolitan Opera kicked off its 2022-2023 season with a historic opening night. For the first time ever, Luigi Cherubini’s Medea enveloped the house in its bewitching, hair-raising, devastating plot set to music that connects the Classical and the Romantic, incorporating elements of both periods. The ultimate revenge opera, Medea is based on the famous Greek tragedy by Euripides, first produced in 431 BC in Athens, and on Pierre Corneille’s 1635 play, Médée. How sublime that it would be a Greek-American soprano hailed as La Divina: Maria Callas—the greatest opera singer of all time in this reviewer’s opinion—who would become the best-known interpreter of the role, responsible for Medea’s revival in Florence in 1953. The opera had premiered in French in 1797, as Médée, at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris, and it took over 100 years for the edited Italian version to debut at La Scala. But it wasn’t until Callas brought her vocal and theatrical magic to the role throughout the 1950s and 60s that Medea enjoyed success and popularity.
Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Cherubini’s Medea – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
It goes without saying that Callas’s iconic interpretation haunted this Met premiere as well as its protagonist, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky who, in interviews, has expressed a sense of honor at following in La Divina’s footsteps. Comparisons are inevitable when a role, especially one so vocally challenging, becomes identified with a celebrated singer who has left the world a unique, immortal artistic legacy. And comparisons did seep in at various moments during the performance, especially when Radvanovsky’s phrasing and vocal colors sounded Callas-ian. But it was precisely at those moments when it became essential to focus on the minutest musical and theatrical details that Radvanovsky generously offered us, and remain as objective as possible, open to her distinct interpretation.
Sondra Radvanovsky as Medea and Matthew Polenzani as Giasone in Cherubini’s Medea – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
That objectivity proved very rewarding. Radvanovsky’s Medea is a vocal and physical phenomenon. From pianissimo to fortissimo, her every sound was full of purpose, whether expressing cunning, tenderness, rage, or anguish. One almost did not need to understand the words or read their translation as the kaleidoscope of colors in her voice reflected her every feeling and intent. The sole issue was that occasionally, some of her eerie or subdued menacing vocal effects were overdone to the point that her voice became too wide, colorless, and childlike which did not fully convey those effects. There was no need for exaggeration. It is obvious that Radvanovsky can easily access such effects in her arsenal of emotional colors with less emphasis; perhaps it was just opening-night jitters that made her overdo them at times. She sang the famous aria “Dei tuoi figli” in flowing, plaintive phrases, bringing just enough edge into her voice to hint at the revenge to come. She brought devastating sadness and simmering fury to her other aria, “Del fiero duol.” By the final act, Radvanovsky’s voice, like her vindictive plan, was fully unleashed, carrying fellow singers and audience on a roller coaster of extreme emotions and vocal colors from aggressively threatening to beguilingly manipulative, and displaying its impressive volume and depth.
Radvanovsky’s physicality on stage was a show in itself. Whether menacingly stalking the newlyweds—her traitorous love, Jason, and his new wife Glauce—or crawling on the floor, often in slithery snake-like movements, or lying on her back in apparent defeat or standing imposingly summoning the gods, her black feathered dress flowing around her, her marble-like arms raised towards heaven, she emanated both a statue-come-to-life mystical force and a primal animal-like power. Her voice and acting, her mere presence, engulfed stage and audience. Right from the start she made it clear not only that this would be her night, but also that it is her interpretation we should associate with the role as well.
Matthew Polenzani as Giasone in Cherubini’s Medea – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
Tenor Matthew Polenzani created a multidimensional Giasone (Jason), the hero who stole the Golden Fleece, with the love and help of Medea whom he betrayed. Polenzani brought stirring shades of regretful softness into his beautiful sound in between jagged outbursts of his rejection of Medea. His confrontations with Radvanovsky were electrifying and moving. The expression of his love for Glauce in his aria “Or che piu non vedrò” resounded sweet and tender in smooth-edged tones and graceful, nuanced phrasing.
Janai Brugger and Matthew Polenzani in Cherubini’s Medea – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
As Glauce, Jason’s young bride and hapless victim of Medea’s revenge, Janai Brugger displayed a creamy soprano voice with an occasional slight edge, which from a dramatic point of view worked well to reflect the character’s fearful premonitions. Her father, Creonte (Creon), the King of Corinth, was sung in imposing and unswerving tones by bass Michele Pertusi.
Ekaterina Gubanova as Neris in Cherubini’s Medea – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
The surprise of the supporting cast was mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova in her compassionate interpretation of Neris, Medea’s companion. In warm beauty of sound and flowing legato, Gubanova painted an appealing vocal portrait, her ample, mellow phrasing serving as a temporary balsam on Medea’s emotional wounds and enchanting the audience. Her aria, “Solo un pianto con te versare,” introduced by a mesmerizing bassoon solo, was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful moments of the evening, providing a brief respite from Medea’s tumultuous emotions.
Michele Pertusi as Creonte in Cherubini’s Medea – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
Maestro Carlo Rizzi deftly led the Met’s exceptional orchestra through Cherubini’s music, delineating its rich textures and various instrumental colors, thus turning the orchestra into a character of its own who menaced, lamented, soared, and bewitched.
The fateful wedding of Giasone and Glauce in Cherubini’s Medea, reflected in the angled mirror – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
In director David McVicar’s staging, the walls of Corinth dominate the set, at the center of which two massive golden doors open to reveal a space where both the wedding feast and the bloody, fiery ending will unfold. An angled mirror hangs over that space—reminiscent of Anthony Minghella’s mirror in his staging of Madama Butterfly—and offers the audience a different view of the action as well as the impression of a warped world. Projections of ocean waves, clouds, blood, flames add to the sorcery-effect of the production. After all, Medea is a sorceress, and a royal one at that.
Ekaterina Gubanova as Neris and Sondra Radvanovsky as Medea – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera
Unfortunately, McVicar’s choice of ending undermined this sorceress’ mythic power—unexpectedly so, since the words “mythic power” were advertised everywhere before this production opened. Medea is not fully human, and through her, the inexorable vengeful justice of the ancient Furies is exacted on humans. After her final murder, she requires a supernatural finale, a horrendous victory that would leave the audience disturbed and questioning the very meaning of justice. There are various versions of Medea’s end, for instance, either she vanishes into the air or flies away in the dragon-led golden chariot that her grandfather, Helios, god of the sun, sent to rescue her. In McVicar’s take, Medea simply lies down next to her two murdered children, and the three of them are consumed by flames. Was this an attempt to humanize her at the end? Was it meant to display the triumph of the regret we have already seen her experience and then violently crush in order to punish the treacherous Jason in the worst way possible, by depriving him of his children? Whatever the intention may have been, McVicar’s ending was the only major disappointment in an otherwise thrilling evening of outstanding singing and acting as well as dramatically effective staging and lighting.
Luigi Cherubini’s Medea runs through October 28 at the Metropolitan Opera.
Top: Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Cherubini’s Medea – Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera