When Maria Callas sang Medea for the first time at Florence in 1953 (and continued with the role until the early 1960s), it was practically a rediscovery of Cherubini’s opera for the 20th century. Unfortunately she and her conductor Vittorio Gui only had access to the corrupt version in Italian translation with stodgy, anachronistic recitatives provided by Wagner’s bête noire Franz Lachner. The release last January of Bel Air Classiques’ live Brussels DVD of Cherubini’s original Médée reminded us what a masterpiece this French Revolutionary opéra comique is.
Nonetheless, Callas was lucky in her conductors of the piece and both Leonard Bernstein – whose fiery La Scala broadcast with the diva was issued a while back by EMI – and Nicola Rescigno, as here, do much to work against the false, inflated tradition of performing the work as a kind of grand opera manqué. They may not rewrite Lachner, let alone cut him, but they do at least infuse real drama into the (only really good) recitative that throws Medea like a bomb on to the stage to interrupt the wedding preparations of Jason and the Corinthian princess the Italian text calls Glauce (recte Dircé).
Also, and this is a big plus for this performance, the Jason is no less than Jon Vickers, something of a Covent Garden regular in 1959 and here singing with a tonal beauty not always present in his later Siegmunds, Tristans and Samsons. Callas herself – in the middle of a period where she was accused of loving the yacht-set high life more than music – is in terrific form in a role whose lower tessitura was beginning to suit her well. A non-love affair (or an ex-love affair) is harder to convey dramatically than burning present passion but the Callas/Vickers team put this over clearly. The support is strong – Zaccaria as the appeaser Creonte, our own Joan Carlyle as Glauce and Cossotto who makes much of servant Neris’s big Act 2 aria.
A worthwhile addition to the historical catalogue in as good a sound as possible; but, if the work gets under your skin, don’t miss the original or the Bernstein set.