Cherubini’s masterpiece, performed in French and without the sprawling 1855 recitatives by Franz Lachner that have stymied modern performances for over a century, has not received a proper first-class recorded performance until this one. Authenticists should note that there are small musical cuts and repeats not taken (which aligns the version given closely with the revisions Cherubini himself made for Vienna in 1809). François-Benoît Hoffman’s (perishable) dialogue has been ‘adapted’ – aka replaced – by an effective, but much shortened, modern version by director Krzysztof Warlikowski and dramaturg Christian Longchamp. Use of modern idiom in the latter (eg ‘Fous le camp’) pleased the premiere audience of this staging (in Brussels, where this revival was filmed in September 2011) but offended some sensitive souls in a Paris revival this last autumn.
Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques draw the fire and flood from a score that is the true godfather of Fidelio, Der Freischütz and much Wagner (try the thrilling prelude to Act 3) – nowhere more so than in the orchestra’s fugal firestorm which closes the evening, an immolation scene in barely three minutes. Dressed as a succession of modern-day witch/goddesses – first Amy Winehouse, then Christina Aguilera – Nadja Michael’s identification with the title-role, physically and vocally, is first-rate and borders (rightly) on the psychotic, while Kurt Streit (in heroic dreadlocks) is ideal as the weak, indecisive, torn Jason.
Warlikowski’s production plays in a deliberately unfriendly modern studio with plastic see-through medical curtains, a sand pit, glaring lights and a chest of drawers where Médée (and her servant Néris – Christianne Stotijn, excellent in her major Act 2 aria of sympathy) keep her props, clothes and souvenirs. The director nails precisely the atmosphere of doubt and fear that Cherubini and Hoffman establish from the word go: Médée will come for revenge and will not be stopped by the ‘appeasers’ Jason and Créon – let alone the latter’s daughter Dircé, Jason’s new intended (rightly played by Hendrickje van Kerckhove as a woman on the verge of a terminal nervous breakdown). The director’s choice of apt images of useless resistance reaches a peak when the only threat Créon and his men can make to Médée to leave Corinth consists of unison banging of plastic water bottles in time on their cupped hands.
This performance here outpaces well-meant attempts from the Courtis/Patrizia Ciofi live 2008 set (Nuova Era) and the complete but often challenged Bart Folse/Opera Quotannis 1997 Lincoln Center recording (Newport Classics). Every aspect of this production is a triumph vindicating Cherubini’s forward-looking genius.