- Opéra en 3 actes
- Composer: Luigi Cherubini
- Libretto: Hoffmann, after Euripides and Corneille
- First performed: Théâtre de la rue Faydeau, 23 Ventôse, An V (13 March 1797)
SETTING : Corinth. TIME: Antiquity.
CHARACTERS : MÉDÉE (soprano); JASON (tenor); CRÉON, King of Corinth (bass); DIRCÉ, his daughter (soprano); NÉRIS, Médée’s slave (soprano)
Of all Cherubini’s operas, Médée is the one most likely to be familiar to a modern listener. Maria Callas made the tragic heroine one of her signature roles (albeit in an unrepresentative Italian translation); she even acted in a non-operatic film by Pasolini after she retired from the opera stage.
But the work was only a succès d’estime in its day; critics praised the majestic imposing score, rich in melody, but also complained of longueurs, dumbshow, choruses that never end, shocking unlikelihoods and even a lack of interest in the story (Journal d’Indications, 25 Ventôse, an V). The opening night, the Courrier des Spectacles wrote, was a brilliant and deserved success – but Médée was only performed about 20 times.
As in Euripides’ play, the action takes place in Corinth. To recap, before the story begins, the sorceress Medea helped Jason to steal the Golden Fleece from her father, Aeëtes of Colchis. Pursued by her father, she murdered and dismembered her brother to delay his pursuit. Once in Thessaly, Jason’s uncle Pelias refused to give him the throne he had usurped; Medea tricked his daughters into murdering the old man. Pelias’s son exiled the couple, and they escaped to Corinth.
Medea betrayed her father and murdered her brother for Jason; now he repays the favour by abandoning her, and becoming engaged to Dircé (Glauke), daughter of the Corinthian king Creon. Medea revenges herself by sending jewels soaked in a corrosive poison to her rival, and killing her own children, before escaping in a flying chariot.
Classical heroines were no stranger to French opera, but the emotional intensity and realism here are unprecedented. Gluck’s heroines (even Armide) are noble, tragic, serene as they suffer; here we have a woman driven to infanticide. Médée is a superb role: at once wronged and abandoned, and as safe to handle as a king cobra. The soprano must not only sing well, she must also be a fine actress. (Acts II and III both open with dramatic monologues: Médée’s invocation to the Furies; her determination to kill her children.) The creator of the role, Julie Scio, was both, as the admiring Journal d’Indications wrote. From the moment she appears, halfway through Act I, Médée dominates the opera; it belongs entirely to her.
Act I takes place outside Créon’s palace. The overture is electrifying; it hisses and seethes like a nest of vipers. The opening of the act comes as a anti-climax: a chorus of servants and waiting-women as generic as anything Donizetti dashed off in an absent-minded five minutes, while Dircé’s allegro (‘Hymen, viens dissiper une vaine frayeur’) is like one of Mozart’s duller concert arias; Castil-Blaze called it a bravura aria with roulades, in the taste of the time. There follows a march and chorus as Jason, Créon, and Dircé enter; and Jason’s aria ‘Éloigne pour jamais d’une épouse cruelle’. None of these are among the opera’s best pieces. Créon’s beautiful prayer (‘Dieux et déesses tutélaires’) launches a wonderful choral scène (‘Tendre hymen’), a slowly unfolding melody that rises to an ecstatic climax. In it we find embedded a duettino for the two lovers.
Now Médée arrives to reclaim a faithless husband and stop an adulterous wedding – or bring horror and death to those who wronged her. Créon’s blustering allegro (‘C’est à vous à trembler’) is forgettable. Médée reproaches Jason for his ingratitude in a tragic, expressive larghetto aria (‘Vous voyez de vos fils la mère’). The act ends in a thrillingly intense duet (‘Perfides ennemis’), one of the finest pieces in the opera.
Act II takes place in a wing of Créon’s palace, with a portico leading to the temple of Juno, goddess of marriage. Médée is ordered to leave Corinth; she pleads for Créon to let her stay one more day; he reluctantly grants it. The ensemble (‘Ah! du moins à Médée accordez un asile’) is long but conventional. Much better is Néris’s aria (‘Ah ! nos peines sont communes’), with its mournful bassoon accompaniment. The idea of murdering her children comes to Médée; even she is appalled, then exalted by the splendor of her revenge. She begs with Jason to let her take her children with her into exile, a ruse to test his love for them; the duet (‘Chers enfants, il faut donc que je vous abandonne’) is powerful and ironic. Castil-Blaze thought the Act II finale alone was enough to make the opera. Jason leads his bride to the altar, while the chorus sing a solemn hymn that Castil-Blaze praised as a masterpiece of harmony. Médée arrives and watches; her fury erupts once the wedding procession has passed, and she is alone on stage.
Act III takes place on top of a mountain, at its summit a temple to the Furies. It opens with a storm of extraordinary power that sounds remarkably like Berlioz or Beethoven in its masterly orchestration. It’s Romanticism decades early. Médée is on stage for almost all the last act – as Ermione, another woman who repays deceit with death, is in Rossini’s tragedy 20 years later. The act really consists of two magnificent arias for the soprano: ‘Du trouble affreux qui me dévore’ and ‘Eh quoi, je suis Médée encore’, which runs without a break into the finale, including a choral lament for Dircé, Jason’s arrival, the discovery of the dead children (in conventional recitative), and Médée’s flight. This is one of the strongest endings in opera to this point, perhaps surpassing even Salieri’s Danaïdes.
Cherubini’s score is uneven; Dircé and Créon are thankless roles, and don’t seem to have interested Cherubini much (Dircé’s arias in Act I and the Médée / Créon duet in Act II are among the less inspired parts of the score) – but the best parts are stunning. And Médée is something new – and dangerous.
Finding a good recording is difficult. Maria Callas is superb, but sang an Italian translation of Franz Lachner’s German version, with ponderous recitatives replacing the spoken dialogue. La Scala 1953, Dallas 1958, the 1957 studio recording, and the 1959 London version are all recommended. The French version (like most tragédies) demands singers who can pronounce French, and act in it too. Folse’s 1997 recording gives an idea, but leaves much to be desired. For more information, see Ralph Moore’s excellent discographical survey: http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2019/Mar/Cherubini_Medea_survey.pdf.
- Castil-Blaze, “Cherubini”, Revue de Paris, 1833.
- Arthur Pougin, “Cherubini : Sa vie, ses œuvres, son rôle artistique – VII”, Le Ménestrel, 27 November 1881