A century after Richard Strauss’s Elektra crafted the definitive conjunction between musical modernism and ancient Greek drama, Aribert Reimann has tackled the even more harrowing and bloodthirsty tale of the child-slaying Medea. Rather than turning to a contemporary poet-dramatist for his text, as Strauss did with Hofmannsthal, Reimann has used the classic version by Franz Grillparzer (1821). The result found favour with Vienna’s notoriously conservative opera audience, as this recording from the premiere run in 2010 shows.
Reimann’s music is much closer to older-style German operatic modernism – Alban Berg, Bernd Alois Zimmermann – than to the radicalism of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Helmut Lachenmann: and Medea follows the line of Reimann’s earlier operatic success, Lear (1978), written for Fischer-Dieskau, which had a London production by ENO in 1989. The vocal writing is predominantly forceful, often florid, but softening into a gentler lyricism from time to time, while the orchestral contribution is mainly abrasive, occasionally restrained. It’s an effective brew, brilliantly performed under the secure control of Michael Boder, and with a cast which relishes the technical challenges. Marlis Petersen as Medea has the most formidable task and the confident musicality with which she negotiates the often stratospheric contours of her part is matched by all her colleagues. This is ensemble opera performance at its best.
Setting and production serve the doom-laden nature of the drama without undue artifice or fussiness, and we are spared excessive close-ups of the singers. The absence of greater degrees of musical contrast (Elektra’s expressive range is not matched) might be explained by Reimann’s determination to prefer economy to expansiveness. Nevertheless, the climax and conclusion of the drama risk miscalculation. After the theatrically chilling (offstage) murder of her children, Medea returns to a broken Jason with music whose impassioned pathos (a lamenting string line) seems to speak, incongruously, of consolation: and although Reimann retrieves the situation to a degree, with a turn to elegiac austerity as Medea tells Jason that “the dream is over”, the sense of being reconciled to loss (strikingly reminiscent of the ending of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs Kong) still sounds strangely serene after all the horrors that have gone before.