The lovely town of Martina Franca, in south-eastern Italy, hosted the 41th Festival della Valle d’Itria in the whitewashed Baroque palaces of its beautiful historical centre. The program confirmed it as a major cultural event at international level for operatic music, as it specialises in presenting less performed or neglected works of the Baroque and classical period, along with contemporary operas. In this year’s edition, the artistic director Alberto Triola, offered the public a real treat, an early 19th century opera which was one of the program’s most stimulating productions: Giovanni Simon Mayr's Medea in Corinto.

Michael Spyres (Giasone) and Davinia Rodríguez (Medea) © Paolo Conserva
Michael Spyres (Giasone) and Davinia Rodríguez (Medea)
© Paolo Conserva

For this production, director Benedetto Sicca created a clearly conceived, plain staging, which was quite effective in dramaturgically solving the questions and contradictions posed by Euripides’ myth. In doing so, Sicca also integrated the drama into the broad courtyard of Palazzo Ducale, not trying to hide the 17th century architecture, but emphasising it as a scenic element.

Mayr, who was German-born (he italianised his name when settled in Bergamo), is nowadays best known as Gaetano Donizetti’s teacher, but in his times he was considered Rossini's rival, and was even compared to Beethoven, with his operas performed in Italy as well as in London, Germany, St Petersburg and New York.

Medea in Corinto, to a libretto by Felice Romani, is quite lengthy and contains long arias and stretches of recitative whose classicism sounds mannered. Nonetheless, there is a fair amount of fine music, well-built harmonies and rich orchestration, and some arias seem to link Mozart’s melodies to Italian bel canto. Almost all arias, the duets and the superb quintet that precedes the first finale are preceded by long and elaborate cantabile instrumental introductions. The overall level of the piece is high enough to welcome this as a happy rediscovery of a major forgotten work.

The set by Maria Paola Di Francesco represented a meadow of red poppies, diagonally split in the middle. The meadow was, in fact, a multi-purpose open space which Sicca populated with the diverse groups (singers, dancers, choir), whose movements were dynamically fit to the drama unfolding on stage. Two dancers, impersonating Medea’s children, were present in almost all scenes, from the opening symphony until the tragic epilogue. Quite unexpectedly, when the drama had come to an end with the atrocious death of Creusa and the awful killing of the two children by their mother, while the score’s last tragic notes resounded over a desertified meadow, a flight of white doves crossed the courtyard.

Mihaela Marcu (Creusa) and Roberto Lorenzi (Creonte) © Paolo Conserva
Mihaela Marcu (Creusa) and Roberto Lorenzi (Creonte)
© Paolo Conserva

At the centre of the singing cast was soprano Davinia Rodriguez as Medea, who moved and acted with the necessary accent and energy. She seemed at ease in all registers, being able to turn theatrically from pitiful to unforgivable. In her first aria she added sincerity to the music and also sang with command the great aria "Sommi dei”, a concertante duet between the voice and the first violin.

Tenor Michael Spyres, a good voice, made a committed, musical Giasone, and Mihaela Marcu offered a pretty Creusa, with secure singing. Egeo was embodied by Enea Scala, who sang with elegance and tonal beauty. Roberto Lorenzi created a nasty Creonte with his thin bass and focused acting. Paolo Cauteruccio (Evandro), Nozomi Kato (Ismene) and Marco Stefani (Tideo) seemed to have no trouble with their roles.

Fabio Luisi is a great conductor, even in unfamiliar repertoire, capable of solving the problems of every score with acute awareness, emphasizing every detail, and ensuring a constant balance between stage and orchestra. His conducting was fluent, obtaining excellent playing from the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia and the Choir of the State Philharmonic "Transylvania" of Cluj-Napoca, directed by Cornel Groza.