Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea in Basel

I am familiar with Euripides’ play Medea and have been impressed by performances of Cherubini’s opera based on it,  but I did not anticipate the huge impact made by Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s version recently presented at Basel. The work itself is a masterpiece, the intense music completely integrated with the highly concentrated and intelligent libretto of Thomas Corneille (the brother of  famous playwright Pierre). Hardly a note or verbal utterance is wasted, an entirely convincing reproduction of Greek drama in the operatic form and in Basel given an outstanding performance. Magdalena Kožená was extraordinary in the title role – a totally committed physical characterisation from which the musical dimension emerged instinctively. But the evening’s success was far from being due to her alone. Director Nicolas Brieger had evidently worked hard with the whole cast, so that their every movement was sharply tuned to the dramatic action. Anders J. Dahlin was an appropriately ambivalent, at times unctuous, Jason – and he sang beautifully. Luca Tittoto blustered effectively as Creon, and pulled off a scene of personal degradation which might otherwise have been embarrassing. In smaller roles, Meike Hartmann and Silke Gäng gave assured performances. Setting the piece in and outside a luxurious modern hotel was disconcerting to begin with, but proved to be successful in communicating the contrast between the pomp, wealth and intrigue of court life and the barbarous consequences to which they gave rise. Basel’s own La Cetra Vocal Ensemble and Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Andrea Marcon, were superb.