Radvanovsky triumphs in Met’s season-opening “Medea”

Wed Sep 28, 2022 at 12:40 pm
By Rick Perdian
Sondra Radvanovsky stars in the title role of Cherubini’s Medea, with Matthew Polenzani as Giasone, at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

When Sondra Radvanovsky appeared for her solo bow, immediately after the curtain fell on the Metropolitan Opera’s belated debut production of Cherubini’s Medea, the entire audience jumped to its feet and confetti fell from above. It was a triumphant moment for the American soprano, who has become one of the reigning prima donnas at the Met. For the well-heeled and well-dressed audience, opening-night audinece the evening  offered everything a night at the opera should be.

The Met presented Medea in the Italian version, which is the one made famous by Maria Callas and most commonly heard today. It the story of Medea, a sorceress, who falls in love with Giasone (Jason) who is on his quest to obtain the Golden Fleece. To assist him, Medea abandons her family, commits murder, and dismembers her brother. As Giasone’s wife, she also bears him two sons.

The opera is set some years later when Giasone has abandoned Medea and is about to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creonte, the King of Corinth. Glauce has forebodings that Medea could cause problems, but the marriage ceremony proceeds. Medea, still in love with Giasone, implores him to return to her and their sons, but to no avail. Her greatest fear is that her sons will be taught to despise her. Consumed by vengeance, Medea murders Glauce, as well as her children.

David McVicar’s new production of Medea—his twelfth for the Met, and coming off his success with Verdi’s Don Carlos last season—bears all of the director’s hallmarks, including massive architectural structures and brilliant uses of color. McVicar updated the action from Ancient Corinth to France during the Directory, the period between the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, which is when the opera premiered in Paris in 1797. Doey Lüthi’s costumes were authentic to the period and quite sumptuous, especially those for the women, who were upstaged by clerics with particularly fantastic wigs.

When the curtain rises, the stage is dominated by massive walls with metal doors that bear a patina of verdigris. They open to reveal scenes of subtle beauty and delicacy in the first act of the opera. McVicar achieves a spacious three dimensionality through the use of an enormous mirror which in which the action is reflected . The scenes in which Glauce prepares for her wedding wearing a dress with a large train and the wedding celebration with a long table that is strewn with delicate violet flowers are particularly stunning. 

There are a few incongruous elements to the staging. One is the Golden Fleece, which Giasone gives to Glauce as a token of his love and protection. Displayed on a rustic wooden frame, it lacks the overall glamour and sophistication with which McVicar infused the production. The other is the antics of Giasone’s crew, the Argonauts, made up to look like the Pirates of the Caribbean, who act like comically ill-mannered louts, treading on the flower-bedecked table.

For the final act, the curtain rises to find Medea lying in the middle of the stage with her image reflected above. It’s a harrowing scene, foreshadowing the horrible deed which she is about to commit. Having murdered her sons, Medea is then seen lying with them in a circle of flames, which grow to encompass the entire temple. McVicar’s ingenious and well-executed denouement presented an extremely powerful ending to the tragedy.

Radvanovsky captured Medea’s torrents of rage, indignation and thirst for vengeance, but also her femininity and vulnerability. The soprano’s acting was stylized, but then Medea is no ordinary woman, being the daughter of a king and the granddaughter of the sun god Helios.

Vocally, Radvanovsky was fearless. In “Taci Giason … Dei tuoi figli la madre tu vedi” Radvanovsky blazed in the fiendishly high tessitura, with Medea’s cries of rage and indignation reverberating through the theater. The contrasting emotions in “Figli miei miei tresor” in which Medea ultimately decides to kill her sons, similarly allowed Radvanovsky to exhibit the full range of the tormented woman’s psyche both vocally and dramatically.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani was also in prime vocal estate and cut a youthful and dashing figure as Giosone. As demonstrated in his portrayal of the title character in last season’s Don Carlos, Polenzani’s voice is becoming richer and gaining more dramatic thrust with passing time, while retaining its essential lyrical quality. For his many fans, Giasone is yet another role in which to enjoy this fine artist.

As Medea’s confidante Neris, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova displayed a particularly alluring, rich voice. Her singing of Neris’ Act II lament, “Solo un pianto,” with a beguiling bassoon solo running through it, was the lyrical highpoint of the evening.

Soprano Janai Brugger was a charming Glauce, who effortlessly spun gorgeous legato lines and expressive coloratura in her aria, “Che? Quando già corona Amor i vostri sospir.” As her father, King Creonte, bass Michele Pertusi was resonant of voice and stalwart in his denunciation of Medea. His fatal mistake was to permit her to remain in Corinth one more day to say goodbye to her children.

Cherubini’s score is often lyrical and light, redolent of the Classical tradition in which he was schooled. The drama comes chiefly from plot and characterizations, and of course the tour-de-force vocal writing for Medea, although the overture expertly sets the mood for what is to come. 

Carlo Rizzi led the Met Orchestra in a finely balance performance that grew in intensity from the first note of the overture until Medea’s final cries of vengeance. There were moments when the orchestra played so softly that the singers were able to give voice to their innermost thoughts in almost a whisper. The elegantly attired Met chorus was also in fine form. 

This is a must-see performance to experience Sondra Radvanovsky at the height of her vocal and dramatic powers. Opera doesn’t get much better than this.

Medea runs through October 28. metopera.org.

3 Responses to “Radvanovsky triumphs in Met’s season-opening “Medea””

  1. Posted Sep 29, 2022 at 9:10 pm by Talmage Bandy

    I will only see it on LiveHD. I’ve followed Sondra a long time and she truly is a reigning soprano. Forget Marie Callas. Sondra is 100 times better.

  2. Posted Sep 30, 2022 at 6:42 am by David

    Radvanovsky just does not have the Callas bite – essential for a definitive Medea – (whether one compares the first or the very last of her Medea performances) the devilish crispness of her phraseology, is just not there…here.

  3. Posted Oct 02, 2022 at 4:10 am by Philip G. Koch

    I’m thrilled that Sandra Rodvanovsky is shining and singing dramatically. She’s one of my favorite Norma’s. . And Polenzani has a gorgeous lyric tenor voice. I can’t wait to go and see This Magnificent work of art. The production sounds magnificent

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